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Materials Research and Development

Fact Sheet

Sandia National Laboratories has the largest traditional materials science and technology program in the Department of Energy laboratory complex. The program, which has a budget of about $100 million and a staff of 500, arose out of the need for advanced materials and materials processing expertise for use in the non-nuclear components in nuclear weapons.

As a result of that mission, Sandia has developed leading-edge programs in organic materials, metals science and technology, materials characterization, and ceramics. A number of Sandia's technical staff members are internationally recognized for advances in these areas. These capabilities continue to be applied in carrying out Sandia's responsibilities in weapons stockpile stewardship, energy research, and nuclear power plant safety.

Because materials are a pervasive supporting and enabling technology for many other industries, Sandia's expertise in all of its specialty areas has been sought out by businesses seeking to improve manufacturing processes or solve specific problems. This has resulted in numerous industrial partnerships between the lab and these companies.

Organic Materials
Sandia has unique facilities to prepare and characterize porous polymers, carbons, and ceramics. The foams can be tailored to possess certain densities, pore sizes, surface areas, or other desired characteristics. They are being developed for gas storage adsorbents, battery and capacitor electrodes, insulation materials, filters, composites, and high-energy physics experiments.

Sticky foam, which was originally developed for use in physical security of nuclear weapons installations, has received extensive attention in the media recently as researchers sought to develop it for use in prisons. The same research team is currently developing an aqueous (water-based) foam for use in riot control and other criminal justice applications.

Because of the need to predict the long-term reliability of polymers in weapons, Sandia has developed considerable expertise in the effects of radiation on the aging of cables, a subject that is of intense interest to the nuclear power community. Sandia's polymer characterization facilities allow scientists to conduct accelerated aging experiments in a variety of environments including gamma radiation, thermal, ultraviolet, humidity, and aggressive chemical, mechanical, and electrical stresses.

Sandia scientists have applied their materials characterization expertise in at least one well-known case: the reinvestigation of the USS Iowa explosion. Working with lab explosives experts, they determined that the cause of the 1989 explosion could not be conclusively determined, and the Navy issued a formal apology to the family of the turret's gun captain, who had initially been blamed for the incident.

Metals Science and Technology
Although people have used low-melting alloys to join metals for centuries, the science of designing solder connections has not kept pace with the technologies that depend on it. Sandia's Center for Solder Science and

Technology was formed to help turn soldering from a presumed mature technology into an applied science.

Scientists have studied how solder behaves structurally, developing models that reliably predict how the microstructure of solder changes over time, and simulating these changes in accelerated tests. In addition, the Center serves as an interface for R&D personnel nationwide to exchange information about soldering technology.

Welding is another seemingly low-tech process that receives considerable attention at Sandia. For one reason, it has been estimated that 90 percent of the U.S. gross national product is in some way linked to welding.

Sandia researchers' expertise in making welds in weapons completely reliable has been extended to such industry challenges as reducing waste and rework on the manufacturing floor and to improving the quality of welded assemblies. New welding processes and processing techniques have been developed through integration of Sandia's broad-based process and materials knowledge.

Sandia has state-of-the-art equipment for friction and wear studies, also known as tribology. Its accomplishments in this area include qualifying advanced solid lubricants for use on the space shuttle.

Sandia's facilities and expertise in corrosion have been applied to industrial problems. For example, the Facility for Atmospheric Corrosion Testing -- an accelerated aging apparatus -- allows components to be exposed to flowing, corrosive gas mixtures similar to those found in industrial manufacturing environments.

Finally, Sandia enjoys an international reputation for its thermal spray processing capabilities. Thermal spray is a generic term for a highly specialized field in which molten droplets of metals, ceramics, glass, or polymers are sprayed onto a surface to produce a coating or to create a material with unique properties. Begun in the 1960s to support defense programs, this capability is currently being applied to the automotive industry where it is being studied as a technique for hardening aluminum, which could then be used to fabricate lighter weight aluminum engine blocks.

Materials Characterization
Sandia performs materials characterization in support of both its weapons and energy programs. It has a wide range of capabilities and resources used to determine the structure and composition, properties, and performance of materials, as well as the interrelationships among these elements. Scientists also conduct research to determine the long-term performance of materials in their use environments.

One highly successful technique used by Sandia researchers is chemometrics. Chemometrics is a branch of analytical chemistry that uses a mixture of mathematical and statistical tools to analyze vast quantities of data and extract useful information. Sandia researchers have focused on data acquired through spectral measurements and have advanced the field by developing and improving multivariate calibration and prediction methods. Their techniques are currently being used to develop a noninvasive glucose sensor that would allow diabetics to measure their blood sugar without pricking their fingers.

Sol-gel (solution-gelation) processes, a way of applying a thin layer of a material to another material, are being expanded at Sandia to improve the performance of a wide range of products such as antireflective and antiscratch coatings, bullet-resistant textiles, lightweight and high-strength metal matrix composites for engine parts, biological and chemical sensors, and even microfilters for water or wine.

For example, Sandia researchers helped 3M, a leading manufacturer of special materials, refine its methods of spinning inorganic fibers from sol-gel to reinforce metals such as aluminum or titanium. These metal matrix composites can be used to produce strong, lightweight parts for aircraft, bicycle frames, or cars.

Recently, Sandia and University of New Mexico researchers announced the development of a more practical technique for making aerogels -- the world's lightest solids. The technique, which eliminates many of the hazards and expense associated with conventional processing methods, may speed up commercialization of the materials, which are believed to have a multitude of commercial applications ranging from insulation to super lightweight components.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy.
Media contact:
Larry Perrine, lgperri@sandia.gov (505) 845-8511

Last modified: August 6, 1997

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