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CONTACT: Neal Singer, 505-845-7078,


Low-Cost Energy Beam Commercialized by Sandia Researchers

ALBUQUERQUE, NM -- With exclusive license to relevant patents, two researchers from Sandia National Laboratories are commercializing an energy beam that has demonstrated an extraordinary number of practical applications.

Created on a small scale in Russian laboratories and made practical in the United States, the beam is composed of light-weight ions -- atoms with positive electrical charges -- that might be considered atoms with attitude.

Their energetic bombardment makes surfaces smoother or harder, and is expected to double or triple the life expectancy of products ranging from tools and dies to jet engine blades. The beam also better bonds and hardens plastics and even may significantly lengthen the life spans of certain medical implants.

Quantum Manufacturing Technologies, Inc., the Albuquerque-based company of physicist Regan Stinnett and engineer Gene Neau, is being capitalized with $4.2 million in phased start-up funds from Rainbow Technologies, a NASDAQ-listed company in Southern California. Quantum Manufacturing completed agreements in mid-March with Sandia that, for a fee, provide the new company exclusive license to Labs patents issued or pending that define the new technology. In addition, a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) has been approved by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in which Quantum Manufacturing will fund further developments by Sandia in those areas.

"The application of pulsed-power devices for use in manufacturing is one of the most innovative applications in years," said C. Paul Robinson, Sandia president. "The original field of high-current, high-voltage accelerators was created to serve defense needs. It is quite rewarding to see this technology used in commercial applications," Robinson added.

How technology came together from Russia and the United States to produce a commercial beam generator is as close as most science gets to being an adventure yarn.

Said Stinnett, “A magnetic switch developed at Sandia and a magnetically insulated ion-beam generator developed at Cornell University, when combined to produce very short-duration pulses of very high average power, achieved effects I first noted in a Russian research laboratory in Tomsk.”

The three sources were of equal importance, said Neau: the Russian labs demonstrated changes in material, the Cornell diode “doesn’t blow up when used repetitively,” and the Sandia switching technology creates pulses of high average power.

The beam’s ions expend their considerable energy as they strike the first few micrometers of most materials, melting their surfaces. The cooling rate exceeds a billion degrees a second and realigns the surface atoms.

When the beam is directed at metal tools, gears, and airplane fuselages, as well as at materials that include welds or are made of certain polymers, the improved microstructure results in healed microcracks and smoothed or hardened surfaces.

The surface treatment also protects aluminum from corrosion by better homogenizing impurities present in all aluminum alloys.

Because the process releases no effluents and uses no heavy metals or solvents, it is considered a “green,” or ecologically friendly, technology.

Increasing surface longevity of metal parts helps ensure safety and reliability of the nation’s aging atomic stockpile because it prolongs usefulness of electronic components that deteriorate over time.

The beam also has been shown to crosslink polymers -- the large molecules from which plastics are made. A scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Eal H. Lee, used an ion beam to treat plastic optical lens material and found that a steel ball used to scratch the plastic was itself scratched, while the plastic was undamaged. The treatment could be used to increase scratch resistance of ski goggles or airplane windows, though a color change occurring during the process is an obstacle to commercial application.

The beam also improves bonding properties of Teflon and polyethylene to the adhesive, epoxy, from six to 20 times. Increased bonding strength would reduce the tendency of the plastics to peel from their backing. Polyethylene is the most widely used simple polymer.

The ion beam technique is different from ion implantation, a far more expensive process that changes the structure of materials by actually inserting ions into bombarded material at room temperature. The ion beam uses ions merely to deliver large amounts of energy to the surface of materials -- causing extreme changes in temperature that effect changes in surface structure. “We use about one ion to every 10,000 used in ion implantation -- about the same ratio as the costs involved,” said Stinnett. The high-energy ions can arrive at more than 100 pulses a second -- a formerly unachievable rate of energy delivery.

Said Steve Glidden, president of Applied Pulsed Power, Inc. in Ithaca, N.Y., “There are so many potential applications for the ion beam that even if 99 percent don’t work commercially, there are still enough to be successful.” Applied Pulsed Power is a small company involved in development of equipment for pulsed ion sources.

Quantum Manufacturing will focus on opportunities in the tool and die, aerospace, automotive, and select segments of the manufacturing and plastics industries.

An eventual application could be hardening, polishing and corrosion-proofing of artificial hip joints. The process could increase the implant’s life expectancy from 10 years to from 20 to 30 years, reducing the number of major surgeries otherwise unavoidable for physically active recipients.

Business plans call for the company, within 18 months, to employ ten individuals and build a third-generation prototype. Within two and a half years, it is expected to have 30 employees and have completed installation of its first customized system.

The amount of capitalization is the largest amount ever obtained through intermediation of Technology Ventures Corporation, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary that helps convert government technology into private enterprise.

How did ion beam technology come about?

“The question comes up, if this beam is so revolutionary, yet is a reasonably inexpensive approach to improve a wide variety of materials, why haven’t others capitalized on it?” says Stinnett, president and director of ion-beam technologies for the new company. “The answer is, because all the pieces of the puzzle didn’t exist until three years ago.”

In the late 1980s, Stinnett was part of a scientific exchange that took him to government laboratories in the former Soviet Union. In the Tomsk Polytechnic Institute in Siberia, he observed the improved hardening and extended wear properties that physicist Gennady Remnev had created by applying very brief pulses, 50 to 100 nanoseconds, of ions of a hydrogen-carbon gas to tiny surface areas of various targets. The beams and equipment were too unreliable, with too short a useful lifetime, to be more than a laboratory curiosity.

(Later research at Sandia revealed that hydrogen -- the lightest element, with the smallest ions -- has maximum penetration, and that ion beams made of heavier elements become increasingly inefficient because thermal conduction removes heat from the material faster than it can be applied.)

Meanwhile, scientists at Cornell University, working on contracts from Sandia and DOE, had developed an ion-beam system capable of providing repetitively pulsed, intense ion beams at energy levels that matched those needed for treatment of materials according to the Russian work.

The system was based on an earlier concept, also developed at Cornell, which uses an applied magnetic field to cause electrons, which have little mass, to circle in a kind of holding pattern between cathode and anode. By doing so, the electrons create a virtual cathode -- a false front that attracts ions -- and causes more of them to be accelerated across the anode-cathode gap than could be accelerated otherwise. The much heavier ions also are deflected by the magnetic field, but not enough to prevent them from crossing the anode-cathode gap and continuing as a beam.

The key feature of a newer repetitive ion beam system, developed by Cornell researcher John Greenley in 1988, added an anode made of plasma, confined and positioned only by magnetic fields, to create intense pulses of ions. The new method did not destroy hardware and was potentially scaleable to commercial systems.

A magnetic field allows the device to be built with small gaps, creating a higher ion current density by a factor of 10,000, said Stinnett.

The third piece of the puzzle was solved at Sandia, where a single-shot ion accelerator was converted to a rapid-firing machine by employing magnetic switches capable of very fast, repetitive action. “Gas and water switches are arc-driven: they dissipate energy, tear up hardware, and only work well a few times a day,” said Neau, who will serve as vice president for pulsed power development in the new company. The magnetic switches, first investigated in the late 1970s at Sandia, were installed in 1991 under Neau’s direction in the huge RHEPP I accelerator. RHEPP -- an acronym that stands for “repetitive high energy pulsed power” -- can be used to explore applications of repetitive pulsed power for inertial confinement fusion and treatment of materials used in weapons systems, as well as for dual benefit applications in U.S. industry.

The latest-generation ion accelerator is a much smaller version. Constructed under the direction of Neau and Stinnett, it fits in a medium-sized room. The treatment depth of materials is controllable by varying the ion energy and type of gas used as ion beam source, though the beam system isn’t yet flexible in changing functions -- “we have to reconfigure the system rather than turning a knob,” said Stinnett.

Also, the lifetimes of the new machines are unknown, and questions about the uniformity of the beam when applied over large areas, rather than the centimeter-square areas needed for laboratory tests, are still unanswered.

“These are engineering issues that we know we can solve, not fatal flaws,” said Stinnett. “Our customer base will share the expense beam development, so that our national defense -- which needs this technology -- won’t have to pay for it.” Stinnett said the company already is working with other companies -- they range from small to “Fortune 500” in size -- to validate the applications.

Much of the “proof-of-principle” research on material modifications induced by ion beams was done by a joint team of pulsed power and materials research scientists at Sandia, said Don Cook, Director of Sandia’s Pulsed Power Sciences Center.

Results of combining the technologies were first reported in a paper published in the 1994 Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings by Stinnett, who led investigators from Sandia, Cornell, the University of New Mexico and Los Alamos National Laboratory in experiments that “confirmed corrosion resistance, surface hardening, amorphous layer and nanocrystalline grain size formation, metal surface polishing, controlled melt of ceramic surfaces, surface cleaning and oxide layer removal by rapid melting and resolidification.”

By 1994, Stinnett and Neau saw the commercial possibility in bringing together the different technologies, and in 1995, Quantum was born.

Technology development work was supported by Sandia’s Pulsed Power Sciences Center and Defense Programs Division, and by the Advanced Energy Projects Division of DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multiprogram national laboratory operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation for the U.S. Department of Energy. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif. Sandia has broad-based research and development programs contributing to national defense, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Technical Contact: Regan Stinnett, 505- 881-4121; Gene Neau, 505- 881-4121
Illustrative graphics available upon request.

Neal Singer,

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Last modified: April 9, 1996

Sandia National Laboratories is operated by Lockheed Martin Corp. for the U.S. Department of Energy.