[About Sandia]
[Unique Solutions]
[Working With Us]
[Contacting Us]
[News Center]
[navigation panel]

[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 53, No. 16        August 10, 2001
[Sandia National Laboratories]

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

Back to the Lab News home page

Labs helps track migrating blue whales Sandia completes basic chem waste site excavation US, Mexican officials discuss binational lab concept

Pop-off instrument packet helps study, track giant blue whales through the wine-dark sea<

Back to topBack to Lab News home page.

By Nancy Garcia

The word "predator" conjures up images of a jagged-toothed feline on the African plain. But the world's largest predators carry out their carnage far from the watchful eyes of trained observers.

Eating up to two tons a day, blue whales cruise the world's oceans, diving down to 100 meters to feed on krill and other small crustaceans they filter from the ocean water. These endangered animals -- as long as three school buses and as heavy as 50 elephants -- dwindled in number an estimated 97 percent by the time whaling stopped in 1966. After resurging locally in the 1990s, there are now some 2,000 blue whales off the coast of California, and perhaps 12,000 worldwide.

Marine biologists at the University of California at Santa Cruz who spend their careers tracking these creatures' elusive and mysterious habits received a little help not long ago from Sandia. The scientists had tried to modify a pager to create a radio tag to track the cetaceans. A colleague at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey suggested they contact Sandia for assistance. With $5,000 provided through the Small Business Technical Assistance program, the biologists received a matchbox-sized receiver that makes their data logger pop off automatically in response to a signal, much like a garage door opener functions by sending a digital code.

The scientists were overjoyed with this advance that permitted them to recover the flashlight-sized, buoyant orange data loggers (each worth $2,500) when they were in the vicinity during calm seas. Previously, they had relied upon a corrodible magnesium link that breaks apart over time, releasing the data pack to send out a locator signal. Recovering the data loggers had been time-consuming and uncertain -- some never were found.

Bearing a time/depth recorder (about the size of a deck of cards), the data logger also records light level. Once the retrieved data logs were downloaded onto a computer, the light levels and clock signals together revealed, roughly, where the whale had traveled -- by indicating day length (latitude) and time of day (longitude). A pressure sensor, meanwhile, revealed depth of dives, while a resistance detector logged when the whale had surfaced above the waves.

The scientists received a research permit to tag the whales, who carry the data logger embedded by a thumb-sized barb in their skin for a couple of weeks. Penetrating about an inch, the barb does not extend past the skin into the whale's blubber layer. It is eventually sloughed off much the way a person's skin will thicken and heal beneath a splinter.

"The whale doesn't even know it's there," says Jamie Stamps (8111), an electrical engineer who received a patent for design of the releasable device. He built about 10 copies for the researchers to assist their studies of whale feeding behavior. The devices were also used by scientists at the Southwest Fishery Science Center in La Jolla and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Jamie also fielded inquiries from the Canadian Fisheries and National Geographic Television.

One bottleneck in creating the final device was acquiring an integrated receiver that was only intermittently available from distributors, he says. Other aspects were fairly straightforward. A couple of AA batteries powered the devices for a month. Dick Jones (8414), who had experience with high-reliability valves, also assisted the work, helped locate a low-power wire cutter that could be activated by small batteries. Dick and Jamie also sketched out plans to create a spring-loaded device that could be reset, which would spare the cost of the non-reusable wire-cutter (each runs $180).

Coupled with video from cameras mounted by corrodible suction cups to the marine mammals, the data logs are revealing a story of animals who must be as efficient as athletes to capture their prey and thrive, says UCSC marine biologist Terrie Williams. Studying Weddell seals and blue whales, she observed the animals conserving a surprising degree of energy during dives, essentially dropping like a stone, then propelling and gliding back to the surface. Williams says it took a bit of ingenuity to discern any motion of the blue whales -- she couldn't detect any change in hours of tape until she increased the speed by a factor of seven. "These are the largest creatures in the world, and I had to get down to whale speed," she says.

Part of the story she expects to emerge shortly involves blue whales' only natural enemy, orcas -- or killer whales -- who can hunt in packs and, being warm-blooded, require more food than predators like sharks. Salmon and other rich fish that are a food of choice for orcas have been vastly depleted. Sea otters are declining in number too -- possibly because orcas have increased their intake of these mammals (Williams has photos of orcas eating sea otters). She says impacts on blue whales, however, are hard to discern since their worldwide population figures are so uncertain.

-- Nancy Garcia

Back to topBack to Lab News home page.

Basic excavation of chemical waste landfill completed

Back to topBack to Lab News home page.

By Will Keener

Ponder this. Two thousand intact chemical containers with unknown contents. Three hundred and fifty corroded, banged-up compressed-gas cylinders. Nine hundred thermal batteries. Three dozen aging munitions components. Several hundred cubic yards of scrap metal, wood, paper, concrete, and plastics. Rocks, in all sizes, amounting to a thousand cubic yards. And 43,000 cubic yards of soil, some of it -- about 25,000 yards -- stained with chemicals and other contaminants.

In a nutshell, you now know what a dedicated team of environmental workers has been doing for the past two and a half years at Sandia's Chemical Waste Landfill in the southeast corner of Technical Area 3. The basic landfill excavation, to a depth of 12 feet, was completed this summer without any serious injury to team members.

"Our team is going to be happy when we can take off these plastic suits and hard hats," says Sharissa Young (6134), Environmental Restoration (ER) Team Leader for the project. "But we'll all breathe a sigh of relief when this landfill project is completed."

All workers at the site were specially trained in health and safety issues, and those working on the landfill surface wore "Level B" protective equipment, which includes synthetic coveralls, hard hats, safety glasses, and self-contained breathing systems. Chemical-vapor monitors and radiation-detecting instruments are also part of the safety gear.

There is still work to do, Sharissa says. But the excavation of the buried contents of the landfill marks a major milestone.

The 1.9-acre Chemical Waste Landfill site was Sandia's main dump for laboratory-generated wastes and other chemical trash from 1962 until 1985. About half of the landfill contents were documented with disposal records, but no written records were kept for the site until 1975, making the job even more difficult.

"Although the landfill was intended only for chemicals, we've found radioactive materials, which we were prepared for, and a huge variety of other things in this landfill," says Don Schofield (6134), the project's assistant task leader. "That's why I started calling it the 'A to Z' landfill."

During operations, the rule of the day was to use unlined pits or trenches for various chemicals, relying on the depth to groundwater -- almost 500 feet -- and the remoteness of the location -- four miles from the Albuquerque city limits -- to create natural barriers to protect human health. That concept failed in part because some of the chemicals dumped at the site moved in a vapor state through the soil to reach the groundwater underlying the site.

Environmental professionals discovered solvents (TCE) in the groundwater below the landfill in 1989 and initiated a number of measures that culminated with the present excavation. Beginning in September 1998, workers used a labor-intensive approach to landfill excavation. Each bucket of excavated material was picked through by hand after dumping on a two-inch mesh screen top. By July of 1999, the process was reengineered using a mechanized screen table and a conveyor belt to improve productivity while maintaining safety. By last summer the landfill was 50 percent excavated (Lab News,

June 16, 2000).

"By excavating the main body of debris from the landfill, we've removed the source for potential future groundwater contamination," says David R. Miller, Manager of Landfills and Test Areas Dept. 6134. Earlier projects, extracting chemical vapors from the soil between the landfill and the groundwater table, combined with the excavation, eliminate the potential for significant future contamination of the regional aquifer. Groundwater monitoring results during the past year for the site appear to confirm that result.

Some of the soils from the landfill will be returned as fill after sampling is completed to confirm that this is safe. Other soils will be stored, treated, and contained at a site adjacent to the landfill, called the Corrective Action Management Unit (CAMU). More concentrated chemicals, gas cylinders, batteries, and other items will be sent off-site to regulator-approved disposal facilities. Investigations are under way to determine if some of the precious metals recovered from the landfill can be recycled.

In some places soil contamination reaches deeper than the 12 feet excavated, Sharissa says. Sampling will help define several areas that can be safely excavated to deeper depths. In some cases, however, complete excavation of all contaminated soils will not be possible.

"Long-term monitoring will be needed at the site, but I believe we are going to have a successful closure," Sharissa says.

After the clean portion of soils from the landfill is returned to the excavation, backfilling will be completed with clean soil and an engineered cover will be put in place as part of the long-term maintenance. .< -- Will Keener

Back to topBack to Lab News home page.

Sandia's binational lab concept broadened by US-Mexico workshop participants

Back to topBack to Lab News home page.

By Neal Singer

A binational laboratory, set directly on the US-Mexican border to solve joint water problems and improve the region's economy, is a startling concept.

But when hesitant high-ranking Mexican funding officials asked how such a lab would help improve not just the border region but all of Mexico, Sandia's Advanced Concepts Group (ACG) -- originator of the joint national lab idea (Lab News, April 6) -- hosted a binational workshop Aug. 2 at the Albuquerque Marriott to seek answers to that question and others.

Among those attending were representatives from the North American Development Bank, Mexico's National Council for Science and Technology, the Mexico Electric Power Institute, the US Consul General, the Consulate of Mexico, DOE headquarters, and the offices of Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman.

The concept of a border lab -- meant to be both symbol and reality of the joint interests of the two nations -- obviously interested the participants. They were agreeable but not intimidated by presentations featuring Sandia's technical achievements and Lab successes in partnerships with large and small businesses, starting others, and providing free technical advice. Attendees went beyond technical proficiency not only to discuss the possible benefits that could accrue beyond the border region but also to broaden the discussion to include the social and economic basis for such a lab. Speakers mentioned the necessity of providing decent sanitation, water, education, and cultural life before the lab could attract and retain the scientists needed to become an ongoing entity.

Local participation, joint leadership

Guillermo Fernandez of the US-Mexico Science Foundation stressed the importance of local involvement, consulting with community leaders, long-term strategic thinking, and identifying specific business opportunities. He also emphasized the necessity of joint participation rather than single leadership through "the strong articulation needed among the different actors to share, plan, and work in teams, as a way to educate and improve the actors that participate."

Other issues, raised by Pilar Noriega of the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, included the necessity of an educated labor pool and successful Mexican methods of preventing high school dropouts: scholarships to students attending two-year technical schools with a prior agreement to immediately hire them, with greatly increased wages, upon graduation. Other participants discussed the importance of K1-12 education and higher education as foundations for improving technology and science throughout Mexico, and the benefit to the nation of a first-class lab to which scientists could come for a year or two and then return to their communities with new information and methods.

Emphasizing education's importance, Mexican economist Sarah Martinez Pellegrini discussed the possibility of technical centers springing up about the lab: "Companies interested in establishing themselves in a community look for educational profiles that match their markets."

Jessica Turnley of the Galisteo Consulting Group mentioned the work of the Appalachian and Mississippi Delta commissions, whose functions are to take systemic looks at social and economic conditions and help correct them. "A third possible area is along the border," she said.

Others mentioned the emergence of NAFTA in making Mexico more attractive for direct foreign investment, the possibility of changing Mexican laws to provide more incentives to science centers and businesses, and the possibility of Mexico teaming with US technology hubs in Austin, San Diego, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe (i.e., Los Alamos).

Sandia workshop leader Gerry Yonas, VP 16000, principal scientist, and head of ACG, welcomed the insights. "No one is smart as all of us [together]," he said. Analyzing the responses, he said, "Given these complexities in time and space, we need a map with all these areas itemized." The roadmap would have long-term and short-term goals expressed in local, regional, and national applications. The map would include factors such as education, resources, and financial opportunities small and large.

Economic development as a force for peace

"Columbus had a map. We need one too," he said. He said he realized that Columbus thought he was going to India, but with a map, everything worked out OK nevertheless.

Sandia's Advanced Concepts Group was created to examine the long-term security needs of the nation, find potential problems that might threaten national or world peace, and, if possible, prevent them from occurring or demonstrate a method of doing so.

"It's easier, cheaper, and less painful for everybody to engage in preventive defense -- to prevent conflicts that occur at borders, boundaries, and between haves and have-nots -- rather than deal with it when it happens," Gerry said. "We first started thinking about economic development as a force for peace in the Middle East. We didn't get there in time, as you probably know. We should've gotten there, oh, about a thousand years ago." -- Neal Singer

Back to topBack to Lab News home page.

Back to topBack to Lab News home page.

Last modified: Aug. 8, 2001

Back to the Lab News home page

Browse current and past Lab News articles

View Sandia news releases and fact sheets

Back to top of page

Questions and Comments || Acknowledgment and Disclaimer