Sandia National Labs

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CONTACT: Neal Singer, 505-845-7078,


Sandia's R&D 100 Awards Show Broad Range of Invention

ALBUQUERQUE, NM -- Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have won six R&D 100 Awards in this year's competition.

The awards honor inventors of the 100 most significant technological innovations of 1995, as judged by a panel of experts selected by R&D Magazine, a technical trade publication in Des Plaines, Ill. that sponsors the annual event.

The contest, dubbed the "Oscars of Invention" by the Chicago Tribune, has grown in prominence since its inception in 1963. Sandia has won 41 R&D 100 Awards since it began competing in the late 1970s.

"That Sandia captured so many R&D 100 Awards reflect the increasing value of the inventions and innovations created in our programs," said C. Paul Robinson, president of Sandia. "The university and industrial participation in some of these efforts also indicates the increasing use and value of partnerships."

The researchers will receive plaques at a formal banquet on Monday, Oct. 14, in the Grand Ballroom of the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia.

The six winning Sandia projects flung a wide net in the field of invention. Winners consisted of a data encryptor -- capable of including video and voice -- to prevent information piracy over the Internet; smart micromachines to provide cars smoother rides as well as harder-to-pick locks on nuclear weapons; the first step toward meta-massively parallel computers; a cheap technique to create aerogels; removal and concentration of highly radioactive cesium-137 to lessen the bulk of high-level nuclear waste; and substitution of aluminum for steel as part of casings that protect electronic circuits.

The Scalable ATM Encryptor device. This protects the confidentiality of computerized data -- including voice and video -- by encrypting it at the place of origin and decoding it upon arrival, says its principal developer, Lyndon Pierson. The device, which protects against information piracy, is intended to work across interfaces that operate at vastly different data rates, such as mainframe and tabletop computers, and thus allows "fast" and "slow" talkers to communicate. ATM -- Asynchronous Transfer Mode Network -- is the fastest method to communicate packets of information across the Internet.

Unlike other encryptors, the Sandia device does not slow messages while encrypting them, nor does encryption amplify errors already existing in the message. Encrypted messages traverse the Net without difficulty because the device permits information at the head of data packets to pass unencrypted. Since headers include addresses, the data cells can be routed through interlocking networks to their intended destination.

"There are no direct competitors to the Scalable ATM Encryptor, since there are currently no end-to-end encryptors generally available that can operate with recently standardized switching and transmission technology," says Pierson.

The OC-12c ATM Protocol Engine. First there were individual supercomputers whose computational results were transmitted on a single output line. Then came massively parallel computers that shared information among processors in a group, but also output information only on a single line. Now, the ATM Protocol Engine, designed by Sandia jointly with GigaNet, Inc. for the Intel Paragon computer, dramatically improves parallel supercomputer performance by extending parallelism between clusters of processors, and does so without size or distance limitation. This should create a very high level of computational power and communication capability -- in effect, a meta-massively parallel computer -- that allows supercomputers to attack a class of problems not addressable before, says Sandia researcher Steve Gossage.

The device adds parallel communications to parallel computing -- that is, the internal communication capability of the supercomputer could be matched by external communications that connect to the processors of other supercomputers. The low delay, or latency, in communications passing through the device means that meta-massively parallel computers could be developed to model currently insoluable problems like Earth’s weather systems. To fully realize these benefits, further research will be needed in the areas of operating systems, databases, applications and input-output drivers.

The Protocol Engine, in tests at Sandia and at Oak Ridge Laboratories, was faster than the only competitor in its class, the High Performance Parallel Interface or HIPPI.

Integrated Micromachine Technology. Micromachines that think, and do so on a thumbnail-size computer chip, are being manufactured in batches at Sandia, due to work led by researcher Steve Montague. By fabricating micromachines in channels etched six microns deep into silicon chips and then burying the millimeter-square machines in baths of hardening material -- in this case, silicon dioxide -- the machines are protected while control circuits are fabricated on the remainder of the chip.

"If you first sink the machine in a trench and then fill in around it, you've recreated a pristine wafer for doing electronic processing," says Montague of his invention. When the circuits are completed, the material protecting the micromachines is chemically removed.

Sandia also plans to transfer aspects of the technology to industrial partners such as Analog Devices of Wilmington, Mass., which produces automated sensors for automobile airbags. The Sandia work should enable a new generation of inertial measurement systems such as active skid-control systems for cars, and active vibration suppression systems to smooth vehicular passage over bumps or washboarded roads, says project manager Paul McWhorter.

One of the objectives of the program is to shrink the size of critical weapon components.

UOP IONSIV Ion Exchanger IE-910 and IE-911. By removing radioactive molecules from a material impregnated by them, researchers greatly reduce the volume of material that must be stored as so-called "radwaste." Sandia scientists, working with researchers at Texas, have created an inorganic material particularly useful for separating highly radioactive cesium from other wastes. Cesium is a byproduct from the production of nuclear weapons. Treatment of this waste by the Sandia separator reduces by a factor of 600 the volume of highly radioactive material that must be encapsulated in glass or ceramics for long-term disposal. Because the new material is inorganic, it is unaffected by radioactivity.

The material is called crystalline silicotitanate. Its two forms are powder (IE-910) and pellet (IE-911). A license, granted by Sandia to produce the materials, has been awarded to UOP, a company based in Des Plaines, Ill. The company specializes in molecular sieve ion exchangers and helped develop the granular form of the material. Los Alamos National Laboratory estimates the new technology will save $450 million in operating and capital cost for cleanup of the Hanford, Wash., site, reducing operating costs of cesium-137 removal there by 50 percent.

The sieve works in the form of a crystal lattice that has a net negative charge balanced by positively charged, mobile ions found in channels in the lattice. The mobile ions are exchangeable with other ions when placed in solution, and the spacing of the lattice’s planes as well as its chemical environment are arranged to favor absorption of cesium, according to Jim E. Miller, one of the Sandia developers.

Sealing Glasses for Hermetic Aluminum Electronic Components. Steel is heavy, aluminum light. Automobile makers and aerospace companies now may use aluminum and glass to hermetically seal electronic components, rather than steel and glass, because of a process developed at Sandia to form glass out of phosphate rather than silicate -- the usual material of choice for glass makers. Silicate-based glass flows and melts only at temperatures that far exceed the melting point of aluminum, wrecking it as a structural entity; the molecular structure of phosphate-based glass permits it to flow at much lower temperatures, where aluminum remains stable.

The Achilles heel of previously developed phosphate sealing glasses had been that they dissolved in water over 1000 times faster than conventional silicate sealing glasses. But, by modifying the molecular structure of phosphate glass through the incorporation of aluminum oxide, "we could improve its chemical durability to the point of being comparable to silicate glasses without sacrificing the desirable sealing properties," said Richard Brow, principal developer of the project.

Another advantage of the new method, which has been patented, is that it makes reliable hermetic seals between aluminum alloy shells and copper alloy pins. "We are unaware of any commercially available thermal expansion-matched glass that can directly seal copper contacts into an aluminum package," says Brow. "Our method could improve the electrical performance of hermetic components."

Low-Temperature/Pressure Process to Produce Aerogels in Bulk and Thin-Film Form. A 60-year cost barrier that prevented widespread commercial utilization of aerogels has been removed by Sandia researchers. Led by principal developer C. Jeffrey Brinker, a newly developed Sandia process eliminates expensive high-pressure, high-temperature processing in favor of standard laboratory glassware, simple procedures, and conventional drying at room temperature and pressure.

Aerogels are arguably the lowest density solid materials, comprised of up to 99 percent air. Their porosity makes them highly desirable insulators for heat, sound and electricity. They are made from gels -- substances of which the most commonly known variety is the gelatin desert, Jell-O -- but the trick is to remove moisture from the gel without causing the substance to collapse. Previous methods of creating aerogels have used high temperatures and high pressures to exceed the critical temperature and pressure of the material, allowing the gel to spring back to its original form, minus its moisture. However, these methods are expensive, potentially dangerous, and the resultant product degrades upon exposure to water.

The Sandia method exhibits permanent, stable hydrophobicity, causing aerogels to be unaffected by atmospheric moisture that could otherwise degrade their insulating, optical, and acoustic properties. Cheaper by 33 to 66 percent than conventional aerogels, the method permits a wide range of conventional forming operations.

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.

Photos: where available, upon request.

Neal Singer,

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Last modified: June 12, 2001

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