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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 54, No. 19        September 20, 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 make progress on retinal prosthesis Sandia, Boeing sign partnership agreement Antiterror decision analysis tool developed Mexican indigenous group views Labs' solar work

Ambitious MEMS-based retinal prosthesis plan aims to give sight to the blind

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By Neal Singer

Enabling the blind to see -- a task once thought the province of miracles -- is the goal of a technical team that includes Sandia, four other national labs, a private company, and two universities.

The idea, funded by a $9 million, three-year grant from DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), is to create 1,000 points of light through 1,000 tiny MEMs (microelectromechanical systems) electrodes. The electrodes will be positioned on the retinas of those blinded by diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. These diseases damage rods and cones in the eye that normally convert light to electrical impulses, but leave intact the neural paths to the brain that transport electrical signals. Eventually the input from rods and cones ceases, but 70 to 90 percent of nerve structures set up to receive those inputs remain intact.

"The aim is to bring a blind person to the point where he or she can read, move around objects in the house, and do basic household chores," says Sandia project leader Kurt Wessendorf (1732). "They won't be able to drive cars, at least in the near future, because instead of millions of pixels, they'll see approximately a thousand. The images will come a little slowly and appear yellow. But people who are blind will see."

The plan is to use a tiny camera and radio-frequency transmitter lodged in the frame of a patient's glasses to transmit information and power to modules placed within the eyeball. The modules will be linked to retinal nerves that will send electrical impulses to the brain for processing.

Dean Cole, a biomedical engineer who directs the project at DOE's BER office in Washington, D.C., says, "We felt that blindness is a devastating problem and that the modern conjunction of materials science with micro- and nanotechnologies in our multidisciplinary national labs offers possibilities for advances, where before people had hit brick walls."

The Sandia approach is to attach a MEMs chip on the retina -- within the vitreous humor of the eyeball -- made of LIGA and surface micromachined silicon parts. (LIGA, a German acronym for lithography, electroplating, and molding, makes small parts of metal, plastic, or ceramics.) The idea is to directly stimulate some of the nerve endings within the retina to produce images good enough to read large print and to distinguish between objects in a room.

A difficult but doable realm

"Compared to the elegance of the original biological design, what we're doing is extremely crude," says Kurt. "We are trying to build retinal implants in the form of electrode arrays that sit on the retina and stimulate the nerves that the eye's rods and cones formerly served."

The size of cones and rods, as well as nerve connections, are in the micron range -- a difficult but doable realm for scientists used to working with micromachines.

"We'll use a crude, shotgun approach that fires groups of nerves. In the long run, of course, we'd like to stimulate each individual nerve," says Sandia's Mike Daily, Manager of Integrated Microsystems Dept. 1738.

Goals of the project increase from 10-by-10 electrode arrays for fiscal year 2002 to 33-by-33 arrays for FY2004.

The project started with work at Johns Hopkins University under medical doctor and researcher Mark Humayun. When Humayun began the Intraocular Retinal Prosthesis Group at Doheny Retina Institute at the University of Southern California, the project moved with him. Teaming with Eli Greenbaum at Oak Ridge, the pair visited a number of national labs. Like Johnny Appleseeds of ideas, they tossed out seeds of thought and ultimately arranged to have each lab work on a different aspect of the electrode array/retina interface.

Said Humayun, "There is a considerable amount of advanced technology literally on the shelf or already being used for defense

purposes that we could use to help solve blindness and greatly propel forward the entire field of medicine."

Other national lab tasks include:

Progress, but far more still to be done

An early prototype built by Second Sight was inserted in a human patient's retina on Feb. 19 at USC University Hospital's outpatient surgery center. The 4x5 millimeter prosthesis had 16 electrodes arranged in a 4x5 array. But far more remains to be done.

Says Mike, "Integrating microdevices into the human eye is incredibly challenging because of the need for high-reliability operation over decades in a saline environment. BioMEMs interfaces and biocompatibility issues drive much of the effort, particularly in the packaging of the microsystem." ('Packaging' refers to sealing and securing a microdevice in place and linking it electronically and physically with its environment.)

Counterintuitively, the rods and cones of the retina lie beneath nerves, not above them, which makes it slightly easier to connect directly to the nerves.

"The tissue housing the nerves is relatively clear. We're investigating which electronic waveforms will best stimulate these nerves," says Kurt. One problem, he says, is that "If we excite a nerve with electrons, we don't know exactly how that compares to the electrochemical response of light on a healthy retina."

There are other issues, he says. For one, the retina can't handle much pressure. Thus Sandia favors spring-loaded electrodes that ensure good electrode contact with minimal force. Also, protein fouling can mess up delicate interfaces intended to transmit electrical impulses. Other problems include biocompatibility -- the problem of rejection of alien matter by the body -- and long-term reliability.

The project, underway since October 2001, is expected to identify the most promising implantation technologies. "The question is, who's going to engineer the best system that works in the real world?" says Mike.

Over a five-year period, says Dean Cole, the project will begin with goggles and move in the direction of corneal implants, aiming if all goes well to prepare five patients for the procedure before the project's end. After that, he says, "The FDA will say they want 100 patients for long-term studies and DOE will get out and leave the project in the hands of industry."

Two hundred thousand eyes in the US are blinded each year by macular degeneration, primarily in the elderly. One baby in 4,000 demonstrates retinitis pigmentosa.

Sandia is receiving $400,000 each year for its part in the research, which is led by Kurt and co-inventors Murat Okandan (1749), David Stein (1748), and Michael Rightley (1745). - - Neal Singer

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Sandia, Boeing establish partnership to develop mutually beneficial technologies

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By Chris Burroughs

Sandia and the Boeing Company signed an umbrella cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) Sept. 5 to develop technologies that mutually benefit both.

The signing was part of a visit to Sandia by Boeing senior officials to discuss future joint projects and to tour Sandia facilities.

Signing the CRADA from Sandia were Al Romig, VP for Science & Technology and Partnerships 1000, and Jim Tegnelia, VP for Department of Defense (DoD) Programs 15000. Signing for Boeing was Dick Paul, Vice President for Strategic Development for the Boeing Phantom Works R&D unit.

"Sandia technology spans from basic and applied research to systems design and engineering, to safety and reliability assessments," Al said. "These competencies, so critical to our national security mission, are also key enablers for Boeing's wide range of space, communications, commercial airplane, and integrated defense systems. This CRADA allows us jointly to capitalize on our unique skills, technologies, and facilities so that we can both more readily succeed in meeting our mission needs and customer expectations."

Boeing VP Dick Paul agreed, saying that this new CRADA will benefit both organizations.

"From the Boeing side, sharing technology with Sandia will help each of us bring new or improved products to market faster and to employ new manufacturing processes that reduce cycle time and cost while improving the quality and performance of our products and services," Paul said. "It's a win-win situation for everyone."

The new umbrella CRADA paves the way for Sandia and Boeing to do business together, allowing them to add project-task statements without having to negotiate terms and conditions on each one. Technical work under this CRADA will be divided into separate and independent projects.

Negotiating the CRADA on the Sandia end were Victor Weiss (1323), Rusty Elliott (1500), and Duane Landa (1316), with Pam Duran (1323) processing the documentation.

"The potential scope of projects is broad and encompasses the wide variety of technologies at Sandia," Jim said. "Each project must provide value to the industry parent and help maintain or expand the technology base vital to the Department of Energy's mission and the DoD."

The initial tasks will deal with concentrating solar power technology, headed up at Sandia by researchers Chuck Andraka and Scott Jones and Manager Craig Tyner (all 6216), who are working in conjunction with Boeing project engineers Mike McDowell and Bob Litwin.

The project objective is to establish a Boeing-Sandia partnership that will combine the strengths of each organization to make Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) a success. This relationship will include a broad range of CSP technologies, including power towers, solar troughs, and concentrated photovoltaics. The project will focus on the development of key demonstrations, risk-reduction testing, and economic/system analyses.

"CSP is poised for rapid growth in the renewable energy market, and the infusion of new technology and processes will facilitate reductions in capital and operations and maintenance cost, enabling CSP products," said Craig.

"Teaming with Sandia on this CRADA will help accelerate progress toward our goal of developing CSP systems for generating clean, renewable electric power sources for consumer use," said Litwin.

Later, more projects may be added in several technical categories, including materials and process science; modeling and simulation; sensors, tags, and associated electronics; microsystems science, technology, and components; logistics and supply-chain management tools; intelligent systems and robotics; manufacturing technologies; test techniques and facilities; pulsed power/directed energy sciences; safety; network and information security; signals processing and analysis; energy systems; and security. - - Chris Burroughs

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Sandia researchers help prepare public health officials, others with antiterror 'decision analysis' tool

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By Mike Janes

Imagine the unimaginable: terrorists have released a biological agent throughout the San Francisco Bay Area that threatens to harm or kill local residents. As information on the outbreak becomes available, key decision makers and government entities -- including public health officials, law enforcement, emergency management personnel, elected officials, and media -- must decide when and how to respond. The speed and effectiveness with which they do so may mean life or death for dozens -- or thousands -- of citizens.

Officials at the local, state, and federal levels are actively addressing this problem, and efforts are well under way to identify effective countermeasures that would reduce the destructive impact of such a scenario. Sandia researchers are doing their part by developing a sophisticated tool meant to assist government officials and others involved in the decision-making process. The program, initially designed for public health officials but to be expanded for other key entities, is a product of the California site's Weapons of Mass Destruction Decision Analysis Center (WMD-DAC).

"If an event like this were to occur, decision makers would have to act quickly and efficiently, but without the luxury of having all of the information at their fingertips immediately," says Howard Hirano (8101). "What we're doing is creating the situation ahead of time so that -- by playing through various scenarios -- the involved decision makers can examine various protection and reaction schemes and figure out what works best under different conditions."

Howard says the program will help answer some of the more pressing questions facing decision makers, from city officials all the way up to the White House.

"How much of an emphasis should we place on building up stockpiles of anthrax prophylaxis? What portion of our investment should go into developing a stronger information network between physicians? And how important are early warning sensor technologies? These are some of the issues that the WMD-DAC program can help address," says Howard.

The hub of the program is Sandia's Visualization Design Center (VDC), a "war room" of sorts that allows users to better comprehend complex issues and situations. The program uses advanced computers, display systems, and software tools that simulate an attack based on real and projected data.

For the Bay Area model, for example, researchers integrate information on symptoms, illnesses, and deaths gathered from local hospitals and coroners' reports to accurately simulate and understand the impact of identifying trends as early as possible. Using this and other data such as air measurements or more detailed physicians' reports, response strategies can be examined and tested. "The idea is that a public health director or other key official can take the information they learn from the simulated event and integrate it into their own emergency plans," says Howard.

This simulation capability is the result of a six-month "program definition study" -- completed in June 2001 -- during which team members analyzed new threats and the site's unique capabilities in combating those threats. The researchers determined that a more integrated approach was necessary, one that brought together the perspectives of those involved as they sought to deal with an event that unfolds over days and weeks, having to make decisions along the way with incomplete information. The result was the WMD-DAC, an interactive, multiplayer simulation "facility" that presents information in a format useful to decision makers with an underlying -- but user transparent -- core based on the latest technical knowledge.

Anticipating the next attacks

While researchers were examining the many dimensions and decisions that are fundamental during a biological attack, the events of September 2001 -- and the subsequent anthrax scare -- added a sense of urgency to the work. Officials with DOE and the Department of Defense, anticipating the next wave of attacks, sought new strategies to protect citizens, and the current WMD-DAC approach was accelerated.

First piloted against a biological attack of the San Francisco Bay Area, the program is now being adapted to address other threats and applications.

"The simulated scenario has really resonated with the physicians and other decision makers we've worked with to date," says Howard. "It's clear they've thought about the problems and decisions they'd be faced with during an attack, and consequently they've helped us to focus on key details and information they will need." Howard says the overwhelming response has been positive, with several officials commenting on the value of the simulation tool in making their jobs more effective during a terrorist event.

Sandia researchers continue to look at additional capabilities that will allow the simulation to address other dimensions and data. One feature currently in the works, for example, is the ability to track a moving population, an important detail for health officials following the spread of contagious diseases such as smallpox. The ability to detect biological agents or other materials soon after they are released -- a Sandia capability already far along in the development and testing stage -- will also be added in some applications.

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Members of Mexican institute visit Sandia, US Indian reservations to see solar energy installations

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By Chris Burroughs

In a visit coordinated by Michael Ross (6218), four people from the National Indigenous Institute in Mexico recently toured solar energy installations at homes and businesses on the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation.

"They came to see what they might be able to do for electrification projects in remote areas of Mexico, which are much like part of the Navajo reservation in the US," says Michael, program manager for Sandia's Renewable Energy Program in Mexico. "The tours of photovoltaic installations were important so that the group might decide whether renewable energy as a source of electricity could be integrated into their future projects."

Prior to touring Indian country, the visitors saw distributed energy, photovoltaic, and solar thermal test facilities at Sandia and the renewable energy installations at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque. They also visited the home of Miriam (14172) and Duane Hilborn on Laguna Pueblo lands. Their home is totally powered by a combined photovoltaics/wind power system (Lab News, Nov. 17, 2000).

Sandia provides technical assistance to tribes in the US using photovoltaic and other renewable energy technologies and is a partner with the US Agency for International Development in numerous renewable energy activities internationally, including Mexico.

The visitors went to the Navajo Nation where they saw a slide presentation outlining a program in which the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) leases photovoltaic systems to tribal members whose homes are off the electric grid. They toured homes on the Navajo Nation -- mostly in the Kayenta District -- where the NTUA, with the help of Sandia, has installed photovoltaic systems at private residences to furnish electrical power (Lab News, June 30, 2000).

Individual photovoltaic systems, which harvest the energy from the sun and convert it into electricity, are the only way many of the people in Indian county can have electricity because the cost of stringing wire over parts of the reservation's rural terrain is prohibitive. To date the NTUA has installed more than 200 640-watt photovoltaic systems at remote homes on the Navajo nation.

"The staff from the National Indigenous Institute visited several of these installations and had the opportunity to talk with homeowners, as well as with NTUA electricians and management," Michael says. Installations made by NativeSUN, the Hopi solar enterprise, were also highlighted on the tour.

Michael adds that they were particularly interested in the fact that the photovoltaic systems provided by the NTUA and NativeSUN allowed people to do crafts at night -- an economic benefit that can be promoted in Mexico. Solar allows both lighting for a longer creative work day, plus electrical power for tools used for some crafts.

Michael says he anticipates a partnership to grow from the visit of the staff of the institute. Other Sandians who facilitated parts of the tour included Sandra Begay-Campbell (6219),

Debby Tewa (6219), and Connie Brooks (6218). Sandra and Debby are Navajo and Hopi, respectively.

"Feedback from the group was favorable, and they left New Mexico and Arizona with a full complement of information for making decisions about the integration of solar electricity into an energy mix for their programs," Michael says. -- Chris Burroughs

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Last modified: September 18, 2002

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