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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 54, No. 25        December 13, 2002
[Sandia National Laboratories]

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

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Visualization hardware closes distances Geothermal energy gets boost Sandia physician/scientist sleuthes smallpox outbreak

Sandia's 'being there' visual hardware enhances long-distance collaborations

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By Neal Singer

If a surgeon in New York wants the opinion quickly of a specialist in Cairo, she probably would send medical X-ray or MRI files as e-mail attachments or make them accessible in Internet drop zones.

But jointly viewing and interacting with the images -- a more effective way to discuss problems -- currently takes minutes for each turn of a visualization. This could be too time-consuming to help a patient on the operating table. In less extreme cases, with medical specialists being paid by the clock, the time delays during extensive consultations could soon lead, as the late Senator Everett Dirksen put it, to real money.

Now a team of Sandia engineers has applied for a patent on interactive remote visualization hardware that will allow doctors (or engineers, or oil exploration teams, or anyone else with a need to interact with computer-generated images from remote locations) to view and manipulate images as though standing in the same room. The lag time between action and visible result is under 0.1 second even though the remote computer is thousands of miles away.

"The niche for this product is when the data set you're trying to visualize is so large you can't move it, and yet you want to be collaborative, to share it without sending copies to separate locations," says Sandia team leader Lyndon Pierson (9336). "We expect our method will interest oil companies, universities, the military -- anywhere people have huge quantities of visualization data to transmit and be jointly studied."

He adds, "Significant commercial interest [in the new device] has been demonstrated by multiple companies."

The Sandia hardware leverages without shame the advances in 3-D commercial rendering technology "in order not to re-invent the wheel," says Perry Robertson (1751).

Graphics cards for video games have extraordinary 2-D and even 3-D rendering capabilities but exercise them only inside the cards. These images are then fed to the nearby monitor -- a cozy arrangement that does not solve the problem of how to plug visuals formatted for 60 images a second into a network, says Perry.

Fortunately, the Sandia extension hardware looks electronically just like a monitor to the graphics card, says Perry. "So, to move an image across the Internet, as a first step our device grabs the image."

The patented Sandia hardware squeezes the video data flooding in at nearly 2.5 gigabits a second into a network pipe that carries less than 0.5 gigabits/sec.

"While compression is not hard, it's hard to do fast. And it has to be interactive, which streaming video typically is not," says Lyndon.

The Sandia compression minimizes data loss to ensure image fidelity. "Users need to be sure that the things they see on the screen are real, and not some artifact of image compression," says Lyndon.

The group knew that a hardware solution was necessary to keep up with the incoming video stream. "Without it, the receiver's frame rate would be unacceptably slow," says Perry. "We wanted the user to experience sitting right at the supercomputer from thousands of miles away."

"In an attempt to reduce the need for additional hardware," says John Eldridge (9336), who wrote the software applications, "we also created software versions of the encoder and decoder units for testing purposes. However, there is only so much you can do in software at these high resolutions and frame rates."

The custom-built apparatus has two boards -- one for compression, the other for expansion. The boards use standard low-cost SDRAM memory, like that found in most PCs, for video buffers. Four reprogrammable logic chips do the main body of work. A single-board PC running Linux is used for supervisory operations. "We turned to Linux because of its networking support and ease of use," says Ron Olsberg (9336), project engineer.

"We built this apparatus for very complex ASCI visualizations. If we could have bought it off the shelf, we would have," says Perry.

Funded by ASCI's [Advanced Scientific Computing Initiative] Problem-Solving Environment, a pair of boards cost about $25,000, but are expected to cost much less when commercially available.

A successful demonstration took place in late October between Chicago and the Amsterdam Technology Center in the Netherlands. A second demonstration occurred between Sandia locations in Albuquerque and Livermore and the show floor of the Supercomputing 2002 convention in Baltimore in November.

"Now that this technology is out there, we expect other applications will begin to take advantage of it," says Lyndon. "Their experiences and improvements will eventually feed back into US military capability."

In addition to Perry, John, Lyndon, and Ron, the design team also included Karl Gass (1751) and Tom Pratt and Edward Witzke (both 9336). - - Neal Singer

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New hope for the geothermal energy industry comes in form of polyurethane grout

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By Will Keener

Members of Sandia's Geothermal Research Department have added a new approach to aid in the often-difficult task of coaxing usable energy from the earth's crust with a drill bit. Their secret: polyurethane grout. Specially formulated grouts -- dense foam-like materials -- can now be used to seal voids in fractured rock formations, allowing geothermal drilling to go forward.

A demonstration last year proved the concept can work. Now testing is proceeding to improve the materials and techniques for delivering them, says A. J. "Chip" Mansure (6211).

In the past, rock fractures and voids -- termed "lost circulation zones" by drillers -- have drained drilling mud away from wells, damaged drill bits, pinched off drilling pipe in the hole, and resulted in collapses and abandonment. These problems mean big bucks -- industry-wide as much as 20 percent of geothermal drilling costs.

"Imagine drilling into a wall at home with a long, thin bit and a hand-crank drill," says Chip, who leads Sandia's effort for developing the grout plugs. "If the bit chatters or bends or wobbles or sticks, it creates problems. In the geothermal industry, these problems translate to costs."

Beyond chewing away rocks with a drill bit, successful drilling must bring the rock fragments out of the well bore. To do this, "mud" solution is pumped down the inside of the drill pipe and out through the bit. The mud carries rock chips back up through the well bore to clear the hole. But in a fractured zone, the mud may leak away without bringing the rock chips up, Chip explains.

Heat and pressure -- givens for geothermal areas -- add to the problems of sealing these zones with most materials. And "cross flows," a condition where fluids enter a well bore from one fracture and leave through another, make it difficult to keep sealants in place long enough to harden.

Zones of lost circulation also make it difficult to cement casing in place in the well. Unlike oil and gas wells, where casing can be "tacked" to the rock formation at key points, the rigors of steam and heat in a geothermal well require that the bore be fully cemented.

Switching gears, changing plans

With colleague Jimmy Westmoreland, Chip had been working on a full-scale experiment to test polyurethane materials as a potential seal, when a phone call from Nevada changed their plans. "We knew that polyurethane had been tried years ago and failed," says Chip. "But we also knew that more recent work on dams and other civil engineering applications with different chemistry had been successful."

Instead of a full-scale test in Tech Area 3, Chip and his colleagues found themselves headed for Rye Patch, Nev. A geothermal well there had been designated by DOE for special funding to resolve a cross-flow problem that had resulted in abandonment of the well. "We took a breath, switched gears, and put a total project together," Chip says.

Past experience and laboratory testing had shown Chip that successful seals would result only if the loss zone was carefully isolated, or "packed off" in the well bore and then the polyurethane squeezed in to sweep out other debris and fill the void. This called for careful coordination in drilling out a temporary plug in the existing well and testing the new sealant. The Rye Patch project would need to involve the operators of the site, Mount Wheeler Power, the drilling contractor, drilling engineer, project managers, the chemical manufacturers and distributors, and other consultants and helpers. "This was technology transfer right from the beginning," says Chip.

Chip acted as project manager and involved George Staller (now retired) in the design of the project. Ron Jacobson was instrumental in fielding the equipment, and Jim Grossman (all 6211) provided software and programming support.

Brave new world of geothermal

The project, conducted in spring of 2001, succeeded in sealing the high cross-flow zone. Previously more than 20 attempts with other types of plugs had failed. In addition to the polyurethane grout, the effort used a special drilling rig, which removed rock cuttings with a stream of air, and a nitrogen foam cement to bond the casing to the rock.

"The Rye Patch well demonstrated the suitability of the polyurethane materials," says Chip. But much work remains to be done.

Changes in the geothermal industry as it matures are affecting technology development, Chip says. Past domination of geothermal production by large multi-resource energy companies has given way to smaller firms with a primary focus in geothermal. At the same time drilling is beginning to require deeper holes, because the known, easily recoverable resources have been exploited. "Drilling costs go up more or less exponentially as you drill deeper," Chip says.

Chip and his colleagues have developed a series of "best practices" as a template to help industry drillers and service companies make best use of the new plugging materials.

Targeting deeper wells

Up to 90 percent of lost-circulation problems are encountered in the early (shallow) going of geothermal wells -- at depths of a few hundred feet and temperatures below the boiling point of water. But deeper targets may mean formulations of foam that can be injected at a few thousands of feet and temperatures nearly in the 400 degree F range. "We are now studying what techniques and practices we can use on these deeper targets," Chip explains.

Another issue is working within the economic constraints associated with "real world" drilling projects. "A high-cost chemical in an industrial setting like this isn't going to be feasible," Chip says. "We are working with the manufacturers on cost-effective formulations and we will be testing these." It appears polyurethane plugs can be provided at about 30 percent of the cost of traditional lost circulation sealing methods.

While the Rye Patch project required many people on site as well as a great deal of pre-

planning, a more typical application will have

to be accomplished by a much smaller crew and on shorter notice. "We are working to design an approach to bring this process more in line with industry practices," says Chip. - - Will Keener

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Sandia's Al Zelicoff searches for clues to Soviet super smallpox strain

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By John German

The evidence mounting against the Russians isn't definitive. But it's enough to make Labs senior scientist Al Zelicoff (5320) and other nonproliferation experts uneasy.

For almost a year, Al has been trying to track down what he believes is a virulent strain of weaponized smallpox tested by the Soviet Union in the early 1970s -- a biological weapon Russian officials today won't acknowledge even when confronted with evidence from their own archives.

The international arms control community wants the Russian government to disclose details about the strain, which Al believes is a particularly potent modification of the virus, so the rest of the world can defend itself from it.

Without the genetic code of the strain, he says, preferably gleaned from a live sample provided by the Russians, doctors and pharmaceutical companies are unable to develop vaccines to blunt the virus' effects should it fall into the wrong hands.

Last week, Al appeared on ABC World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News and was interviewed by a US News & World Report reporter about the alleged super strain.

The missing strain became newsworthy early last week when the CIA announced it was following leads provided by an informant who claimed a late Russian bioweapons researcher might have given the smallpox strain to Saddam Hussein's government during a visit she made to Iraq in 1990.

A report published in June by the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), titled "The 1971 Smallpox Epidemic in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Biological Warfare Program," details efforts by Al and others to track down the alleged strain. The full report is available at http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/opapers.htm.

The report's centerpiece is Al's 10-page epidemiological analysis of a smallpox outbreak in fall 1971 in Aralsk, a port city on the northern shore of the Aral Sea in what was then the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic.

Al's investigation of the outbreak was aided by new details from a previously secret Soviet medical report turned over late last year to US officials by Prof. Bakyt Atshabar, director of the Mosgut Aikinbaev Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Infections in Kazakhstan.

These official Soviet documents (circa 1971), also included in the CNS report, include autopsy reports, pathology reports, containment tactics, and an official Soviet analysis of the outbreak's source.

The outbreak

From August to October 1971 in Aralsk, 10 cases of smallpox were recorded, and three people died. Russian officials quarantined the city for weeks.

Nearly 50,000 people were vaccinated in less than two weeks. Many were isolated in a makeshift hospital on the outskirts of town. Homes and belongings were decontaminated or burned.

The person believed to have introduced the virus to Aralsk was a young female ichthyologist who had just returned from a four-week research expedition on the Aral Sea aboard the Lev Berg, a small fishing boat.

According to official documents, she was bed-ridden with a fever, headache, and muscle aches aboard the ship beginning Aug. 6, five days before returning to Aralsk on Aug. 11.

Before public health officials diagnosed smallpox as the cause of her illness six weeks later, the young woman had exposed her nine-year-old brother, who had exposed others.

Soviet officials kept the outbreak secret, failing to report it to the World Health Organization as required.

Official accounts

How the young woman, known as "Patient 1" in Al's report to obscure her identity, was exposed to the virus remains a matter of contention.

The Russians claimed, and still do, that Patient 1 most likely was exposed when she disembarked from the Lev Berg at one of three ports during the expedition.

Although today smallpox is eradicated from human populations, in 1971 it persisted endemically in Afghanistan and theoretically might have been brought to Aralsk or to any of the Aral Sea's port cities by migrants.

The Soviet documents relate that Patient 1 left the Lev Berg at each port. They detail how she bought a dress, a towel, and some fabric in one city. She possibly contracted smallpox at one of the ports, which she visited eight, six, and two days prior to the appearance her symptoms on Aug. 6, the documents contend.

A different story

But Patient 1, age 54, now a citizen of Kazakhstan, says she never left the Lev Berg during the expedition. In fact, she claims, female crew members were forbidden from disembarking. She says she first experienced symptoms on her return to Aralsk on Aug. 11 or 12, not on board the ship on Aug. 6 as stated in the official Soviet account.

The details of her visits to the port cities were fabrications, she told Al, who located her and interviewed her by phone, with help from interpreter Elena Bloomstein (5327), in May 2002.

No one else aboard the Lev Berg became ill, so it is unlikely Patient 1 was exposed to smallpox by a crew member who had disembarked from the ship, says Al. And no outbreaks were reported in any of the Aral's ports in 1971, so it seems unlikely the virus made its way to the Lev Berg without infecting a single local, he says.

Biowarfare island

In addition, says Al, the average latency period of smallpox is 13 days, with a range of 11 to 15 days.

According to Patient 1 and official accounts of the Lev Berg's expedition, 13 days prior to the onset of Patient 1's symptoms, about July 30, the ship was sailing somewhere south of Vozrozhdeniye Island.

International arms control experts know the Soviet Union conducted offensive biological weapons testing on the island, known as Voz Island, beginning in 1936. By 1971, it was the major proving ground for the Soviet Union's bioweapons program, according to former Soviet officials who worked on the island.

Although historical documents do not detail an open-air test of smallpox on Voz in 1971, the Soviets are known to have been experimenting with the variola virus (the causative agent of smallpox) as an offensive weapon at the time, and several tests of other biological agents dispersed by aerosol sprayers and exploding bombs are recorded during that time.

Al believes the Lev Berg might have strayed too close to the island as smallpox viral particles, alighted on the wind by a Soviet weaponizing additive, floated across the ship's decks, where Patient 1 netted fish day and night.

A November 2001 interview in the Moscow News of Gen. Pyotr Burgasov, a former chief sanitary physician for the Soviet Union, indicates the Soviet government knew of the mishap. (See "Interview supports Voz Island hypothesis" below left.)

A super strain?

To bolster his case, Al also compared the newly released epidemiological data from the Aralsk outbreak with data from a documented natural outbreak in Kosovo in 1972, and with other data compiled from more than 10,000 cases of smallpox in India published in 1964.

In Aralsk, a significantly greater proportion of infections were of the severe and often fatal hemorrhagic variety of smallpox, he says. In addition, although infants are very rarely stricken by hemorrhagic smallpox, in Aralsk two of the ten victims were infants, and both died from hemorrhagic infections.

The seemingly high percentage of hemorrhagic cases and the skewing of the distribution to very young children suggest that an unusual strain of the virus was responsible, Al's report states.

Further, five of the six adults infected in Aralsk had been vaccinated against smallpox, even though the vaccine is usually 90 percent effective at protecting those exposed. And twice the expected number of "household contacts" of infected persons also became infected, says Al.

Circumstantial evidence

Although Al's conclusions are limited by the small numbers of victims, the Aralsk data at least suggest that an unusually virulent strain might have caused the outbreak, possibly a vaccine-resistant strain, he says.

"For the first time, there is clear circumstantial evidence that the Soviets not only 'weaponized' smallpox, but succeeded in aerosolizing it and, it appears, 'hardening' the virus so that it maintained its infectivity as it traveled downwind over a distance of at least 15 kilometers," Al's report concludes.

"Only a detailed analysis of the Aralsk strain with the most modern tools of molecular biology can guide public health officials and defense planners in formulating appropriate policies and prophylaxis, which may include a concerted effort to produce new vaccines," it states.

With Russia eager to be accepted by the West, it adds, "it is long past time for Moscow to reveal the detailed history of the Soviet BW program. Helping to resolve the numerous uncertainties about the 1971 smallpox outbreak in Aralsk would be an important step in that direction."

Appeal for openness

In July, Al co-signed a letter to Lev Sandakhchiev, Director of VEKTOR, the official Russian repository lab for smallpox. The signatories included Joshua Lederberg, winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine; Peter Jahrling, Principal Scientific Advisor, US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID); and Tom Monath, Chief Scientific Officer of vaccine maker Acambis Inc.

The letter urged Sandakhchiev to encourage the Russian government to report details of any open-air smallpox tests in 1971 on Voz and to cooperate with international authorities to turn over samples of any undisclosed variola strain.

"This unfortunate outbreak occurred over 30 years ago, under the Soviet regime, and prior to the coming in force of the Biological Weapons Convention," the letter states. "A new era is upon us, and we hope that information from these dangerous experiments can help us to work with you to prevent the use of smallpox as a biological weapon. We know that you share with us a passionate attachment to that goal. We have little interest in raking up the past, except where that is necessary to protect our future."

Al says he continues to press the issue with Russian and US officials. He's briefed numerous government officials, including an individual at the deputy undersecretary level in the US Department of Defense. More important, says Al, Jahrling, the United States' most respected smallpox expert, has taken the message even higher.

Al's analysis "provides strong circumstantial corroboration of suspicions that Soviet bioweaponeers conducted open air testing of smallpox virus on Vozrozhdeniye Island" and "elevates the theoretical concerns about variola virus as an agent of mass destruction to a new level," wrote Jahrling in a commentary of the CNS report.

"The main significant finding in Aralsk was that smallpox could be successfully aerosolized over long distances," says Al of his study conclusions. "That the virus strain in Aralsk may have caused worse-than-usual disease is suggested, but not proved, by the statistical analysis.

"I believe that eventually our Russian friends might come around," he adds, perhaps as the result of political pressure, a desire to do the right thing, or both. "After all, this is one area where their help could truly be important and life-saving," he says. -- John German

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Last modified: December 24, 2002

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