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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 54, No. 16        August 9, 2002
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Researchers building biologically fueled microfuel cells Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies gets $75 million DOE go-ahead Groundbreaking held for JCEL -- the Joint Computational Engineering Laboratory Genomes to Life funds research in California

Researchers building biologically fueled microfuel cells

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By Chris Burroughs

Tomorrow's sensors, communication devices, and other microelectronics technology may be powered by life. That is, powered by glucose obtained from living biological systems, ranging from human skin to plant tissues.

Doug Loy (6245) and Kent Schubert (1763) are leading a three-year internally funded Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Grand Challenge to develop new compact power sources for devices fueled by biological hosts such as plants or animals. The project, Bio-MicroFuel Cell Grand Challenge, could fill a need for uninterrupted autonomous power for applications where batteries are too large and/or too short-lived.

"We are initially looking at 'harvesting' glucose from living plants to serve as the power source for sensors," Kent says.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts a fuel, typically hydrogen and oxygen, into electricity. Instead of hydrogen, the fuel for the bio-microfuel cell will be glucose from a living system. But like a hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell, the primary emission is water. The biofuel cell will also create a small amount of carbon dioxide.

But unlike a hydrogen fuel cell, which has to be refueled with hydrogen periodically, the bio-microfuel cell will continue to produce electricity as long as the plant or other biological host remains alive.

The grand challenge is divided into six research teams:

To date the researchers have built several operational microfuel cells. They separately demonstrated the feasibility of converting glucose to electricity, but have not yet powered a micro fuel cell with glucose.

The Sandia researchers are simultaneously developing two types of catalysts -- one made from enzymes and one from a precious metal, probably platinum alloyed with other materials.

In its final form, the fully integrated system is expected to be the size of a small matchbox with a "harvester" tail protruding. The harvester will be a simple input device that could be a short needle penetrating into a living biological source, like a plant or a tree. Whatever the source, glucose-containing fluid will be drawn from the biological host. Then, using a membrane, the glucose will be separated from the fluid and oxidized in an electrochemical cell, producing electricity and water. The goal of the project is to produce a 100 mW bio-microfuel cell in as small a package as possible, sufficient to power small devices. With breakthroughs in a few key technical areas, it may be possib le to achieve 100 mW/cm2 of output power.

VP 1000 Al Romig says the Bio-MicroFuel Cell work is a "classic example of Sandia expertise in engineering and physical sciences being applied to a biological system problem."

"The results of this work will have a profound impact on our nation's security and potentially our economic prosperity," he says. "Without the interdisciplinary collaboration between physical and biological disciplines, these results would not be possible."

Doug sees a lot of potential uses for the bio-microfuel cell.

"We anticipate the bio-microfuel cell will have a number of spin-off markets, particularly in the health care arena," Doug says. "Such devices could be used, for example, to power pacemakers, using glucose in a patient's blood as the fuel source."

The project comes with several "grand challenges" to overcome, Kent says.

"Although many people and a lot of money have been devoted for many years to the development of microfuel cells that burn hydrogen gas, it is noteworthy that such devices are not yet commercially available," Kent says. "Micro-sized direct methanol fuel cells are under development for consumer electronics such as laptop computers and cell phones. Though some may be close, none are on the market yet. In attempting to work with glucose or other bio fuels, the Sandia project is attempting to go even further."

For example, an issue researchers must overcome centers on the fluid carrying the glucose, which has the potential for poisoning the catalyst. To overcome this, they are using two tactics -- coming up with a way to purify the fuel before going to the catalyst and developing catalysts that are resistant to the poison.

"This is only one of many major technical challenges facing the Bio-MicroFuel Cell team," Kent says. "I'm sure there are some we don't even realize yet, but the payoff for developing the capability will be enormous."

- - Chris Burroughs

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Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies gets $75 million DOE go-ahead

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By Neal Singer

Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories will jointly receive more than $75 million for design and construction of the practical yet visionary joint Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT).

DOE's Office of Science approved funding in July for the national user facility that will permit university, industry, and government researchers to explore and develop the rapidly emerging field of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is used to build materials and devices on the scale of atoms and molecules. Among its advantages are smaller components, more precise functionality, lower energy requirements, and reduced waste and exploitation of natural resources. Innovations from this field are expected by many scientists to expedite improvements in drug discovery and health, computing, transportation, and manufacturing.

Two new buildings will include a joint core facility in Albuquerque just north of Sandia. A smaller building will be built in Los Alamos to serve as a gateway. Sandia, for its gateway -- distinct from the core facility -- will use space in Bldg. 897. Through these facilities, researchers from industry and universities will enjoy access not only to the equipment of CINT but also to the resources of the two huge labs.

Among the Center's distinctive features:

Terry Michalske (1040) of Sandia and Don Parkin of Los Alamos will serve as founding Director and Associate Director, respectively, for CINT.

Both laboratories have a large amount of work already ongoing in the micron realm, which is about a thousand times larger than nano. (A length of 70 microns is the approximate diameter of a human hair.) Already ongoing work at the micron level is expected to help leverage work at the nanoscale by providing both tools and goals for nanostructures. - - Neal Singer

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Groundbreaking held for JCEL -- the Joint Computational Engineering Laboratory

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By Neal Singer

On an overcast day last week, in a tent surprisingly inconspicuous at one end of the large bare field that one day will be MESA, approximately 100 Sandians and outside workers celebrated with balloons, cookies, and brief speeches the ceremonial groundbreaking for Sandia's long-awaited computational nerve center, the JCEL building.

JCEL -- for Joint Computational Engineering Laboratory -- will house 175 people, stand three stories high, contain 61,000 square feet of working space, and (from artist's renderings) have glassed-in staircases at each end that give the pleasant impression the building has wings.

"It's a very architecturally pleasing office facility," says project manager Jim Dawson (10824), "designed to attract and retain top researchers."

The $28.8 million building -- the figure includes design, user equipment and project management -- will consist of three towers composed of eight 20-person suites and a director's suite, all access-controlled and sound-attenuated for top-secret work. The project, west of Bldg. 897, is funded by NNSA through the ASCI program.

Said Sandia President Paul Robinson, opening the ceremony, "Ten years ago, the US conducted its last nuclear test, and we were challenged: can you guarantee performance, reliability, and safety of US weapons without testing?" referring to the Stockpile Stewardship program. "This facility is a key oasis on that journey."

Glorying in "living in interesting times" -- a condition generally mentioned as a problem -- Paul said that "JCEL will involve science and computing at the highest level ever done in history, and raise the level of computing worldwide in the process."

Modeling and simulation codes will enable researchers "to fly like gnats" through mechanisms still in the design state, examining all the parts. When the supercomputers of NNSA are linked, he said, "JCEL will be a big node of that connection."

NNSA's Bill Reed was "delighted we're doing so much good for hardworking ASCI and stockpile people." He described -- as an example of Sandia work ethic -- how Nuclear Weapons Senior VP Tom Hunter (who missed the groundbreaking because of prior commitments) had cut short his July 4 vacation to travel to Washington to speak for the ASCI program. "On with the journey," Reed said.

Mike Zamorski, DOE's Kirtland Site Area Director representing local federal staff, said, "It's nice to be associated with a vibrant enterprise. I look forward, in not too long a time, to be present at the ribbon-cutting [at the opening of the building]."

Construction, by Hensel-Phelps out of Austin, is expected to be completed in 18 months.

Tom Bickel (9100) said he "looked forward to the opportunity to fundamentally change the way engineering design is done at Sandia and in the US."

Paul Yarrington (9230) praised the "shoulder-to-shoulder interactions that the JCEL facility will provide" among researchers.

Mike Vahle (9900) said that "great infrastructure enables talented people to do important work."

The architectural plan, by Atkins Benham Inc. out of Oklahoma City, is designed to meet DoD's Antiterrorism Force Protection Construction Standard. Cynthia Figueroa-McInteer (10853) serves as planning and project development contact.

In accordance with DOE's environmental awareness programs, the building is constructed of environmentally friendly materials. Some of the design features include semiporous pavers to absorb water instead of encouraging run-off, light-colored brick to decrease heat gain, the use of easily replenishable woods, and mastics that demonstrate low out-gassing.

John Zepper (9143), manager of production computing and host of the ceremony, says the modeling and simulation work in the ASCI program will be further enabled by JCEL. "It will pull together 9200 [computing science] and 9100 [engineering science], enable closer collaboration, and faster development of ASCI codes." -- Neal Singer

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Genomes to Life funds research in California

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By Nancy Garcia

Two California-site Sandians are among the collaborators in newly announced DOE genomic research grants. Sandia/New Mexico leads another winning genomics proposal described last month (Lab News, July 26).

The awards are part of the department's new "Genomes to Life" program that plans to take advantage of solutions that nature has already devised to help solve problems in energy production, environmental cleanup, and carbon cycling. Through biological, physical, and computational sciences, the program seeks to understand entire living organisms and their interactions with the environment.

"The fact that Sandia is participating in three of these laboratory awards validates and legitimizes Sandia's emerging capabilities in biotechnology," says Deputy Director Len Napolitano (8130).

Metal/radionuclide-reducing bacteria

Sandia is a partner in the $36.6 million, five-year grant to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to study "Rapid Deduction of Stress Response Pathways in Metal/Radionuclide-Reducing Bacteria." The team, including Anup Singh (8130), will develop computational models to describe and predict the behavior of gene regulatory networks in microbes in response to the environmental conditions found in waste sites contaminated with metals and radionuclides.

"Bacteria either convert the soluble, easily transportable metal compounds into insoluble compounds or immobilize them," Anup says. "Most of the sites are heavily contaminated so the bacteria need to survive in an environment that is very different from their natural environment."

To deduce how soil bacteria may aid site remediation, the team will compare types with varying levels of activity to see which cellular machinery (proteins and their assemblies, called complexes) is involved.

Sandia will focus on analyzing the proteins and protein complexes that act like molecular machines, Anup says, while most of the bioremediation-related microbial research will be done at LBNL. Other research partners are Oak Ridge National Laboratory; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Missouri, Columbia; the University of Washington, Seattle; and Diversa Corp. in San Diego.

The individual microbes being studied under the grants have all had their genetic sequence determined through DOE's Microbial Genome program (http://microbialcellproject.org/). Since it is the proteins that carry out almost all cellular functions, Sandia, LBNL, and Diversa will try to identify the relevant protein complexes in various bacteria, both "wild types" and mutant forms. When bacteria are exposed to stressful conditions, some alter their metabolism to ensure survival. Sandia will try to help identify and quantify proteins and complexes involved in bacterial stress-response pathways, examining large number of proteins at a time using its unique expertise and infrastructure in microseparations and mass spectrometry to determine the nature and

composition of complexes.

LBNL will then use these data for computational models of how the genes controlling these pathways are turned on and off.

Identifying protein complexes

A second grant, to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for $23.3 million over three years, also targets proteins through a proposal entitled, "A Research Program for Indentification and Characterization of Protein Complexes." Malin Young (8130) brings to the collaboration a unique in-house capability, MS3D. This method to probe structure uses mass spectrometry to identify complexes embedded, like raisins in bread, in outer bacteria membranes. The complexes act as a "gatekeeper" for surrounding interactions. To gain structural clues, the complexes have been hooked chemically to their immediate spot in the membrane. This gives researchers a picture of how the assemblies nest there and function in their native state.

Other research partners are Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Utah. The group will examine two microbes: Shewanella oenidensis, known for its ability to transform metals and toxic materials into harmless forms; and Rhodopseudomonos palustris, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into biomass.

"Success," Malin said, "will result in a knowledge base that can provide insight into the relationship between protein complexes and their biological function."

-- Nancy Garcia

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Last modified: August 22, 2002

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