ALBUQUERQUE, NM -- Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories won eight awards in this year's R&D 100 competition -- the largest number Sandia has garnered since it began competing in the late 1970s.
The awards honor inventors of the 100 most significant technological innovations of 1996, 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 inventions must already be applied, or close to it, rather than "breadboard" -- good ideas with much still to be worked out.
Sandia winners proposed devices -- newly or nearly in use -- in fields ranging from medicine to computers, and from manufacturing to resource exploration to the prevention of widespread power failures.
Winners will receive plaques at a black-tie dinner at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry on September 25. All winning projects will remain on display at the museum for a month after the awards, said Vic Camello, a senior editor at R&D Magazine. The magazine also will announce its "Researcher of the Year" during that awards dinner.
The Sandia winners:
BIOLOGICAL MICROCAVITY LASER. A handheld device that analyzes blood samples in minutes -- it currently may take laboratories hours to weeks to return an analyzed sample -- has been jointly patented by researchers at Sandia and the National Institutes of Health, says principal researcher and Sandia project leader Paul Gourley.
The proof-of-principle device, which uses many tiny fingers of laser light to image cells in a drop of blood placed in a small chamber, can be miniaturized to microchip size and would be field-portable. The apparatus eliminates the need to "stain" blood cells for better visibility, or send them to a distant lab for analysis, thus eliminating transportation costs and delays as well as potential for additional error.
Using the device, "It's possible to take a blood sample containing millions of cells and extract information about each cell within a few minutes," said Gourley. "The method determines variations in cell characteristics that might be indicative of disease."
The device should prove useful in combat situations or terrorist attacks when shipment of a blood sample to a remote location is impractical, and correct determination of foreign gaseous or biologic components in the blood must be effected quickly to save lives.
NONVOLATILE FIELD EFFECT TRANSISTOR DEVICE. This new class of memory technology more familiarly known as the protonic chip, saves a computer user's sanity when the power unexpectedly turns off. The chip uses clunky protons that maintain screen memory by staying where they are, rather than skittish electrons that vanish into the night, taking with them your latest entries. The device is inexpensive, low-powered, and simple to fabricate, says Bill Warren, lead Sandia researcher on the project.
To create the memory-retentive chip, the key fabrication step is to bathe the hot microchip in hydrogen gas. The gas, permeating the chip, breaks up into single ions -- i.e., protons -- at defects in the silicon dioxide. (The defects were created by the heat of the manufacturing process.) The protons can roam only within the chip's central layer of silicon dioxide, where they are trapped by two layers of silicon that sandwich the silicon dioxide.
A positive low-voltage applied to one side of the silicon repels the protons to the far side of the silicon dioxide. A negative low-voltage applied to the silicon attracts the protons to the near side of the silicon dioxide.
If the power is turned off, the protons stay where they are, retaining information until the machine is repowered.
FILMETRICS F-30 OPTICAL PROBE. Varying a conception in the middle of a task may mean one is the Michael Jordan of one's field, adaptable and high scoring. Until Filmetrics F-30, there was no simple, inexpensive way for growers of thin films of materials (essential components of modern microelectronics) to modify the recipe that deposits film as it was being grown. Instead, a production run would repeat what had just been grown, or be limited to the awkward procedure of modifying a physical or chemical condition before beginning and then judging results after finishing.
With the F-30 probe, "Failure within a growth run is detected immediately," writes Sandia researcher and project head Bill Breiland, "and the source of the failure is quickly determined by studying the real-time in situ history of the growth run." The recipe can be modified as the run progresses. The F-30 probe -- approximately 1/5 the cost of comparable probes -- also can be used as a pre-growth calibration tool: procedures at Sandia that used to take weeks can now be accomplished within a single one-hour growth run, Breiland says.
The device works by reflecting visible or near-infrared light from films to measure their growth rates. The technique is based on the principle that different film thicknesses and materials cause different patterns of reflected light. The sensitive probe can evaluate almost 10 times the number of wavelengths as its closest competitor. The sensitivity is important in distinguishing between materials that refract at different wavelengths.
HIERARCHICAL HIGH-PERFORMANCE STORAGE SYSTEM (HPSS). Everyone knows -- well, many people know -- that the amount of data storable in a modern desktop computer exceeds that of the entire North American Strategic Air Command in the early 1960s. Now, in the Internet age, the rent's come due -- how, on-line, can we continue to store and make use of government, corporate, foundation, university, commercial and private data, when at least one study suggests the amount of such data is increasing about 100 percent annually?
The HPSS project at Sandia National Labs is part of a research collaboration between industry, university research centers, and national laboratories to develop mass storage system software. The system improves performance and increases storage merely by adding more units. The primary purpose of the HPSS is to store large amounts of data and move them rapidly between high-performance computers, clusters of work-stations, and storage libraries. "Rapidly," in this case, means at speeds 100 times or more faster than today's storage software systems.
"We have 13 sites already running our software at national labs, universities, and industry, on IBM-type platforms across the country," said Sandia project leader Rena Haynes.
The storage system transfers files at rates of billions of bytes per second and can contain millions of gigabytes of data.
As one of five principle development sites, researchers at Sandia -- both in Albuquerque and in Livermore, Calif. -- helped develop the algorithms to make high-capacity storage systems both secure and high-performing in a massive computational environment. (The other principal sites are at Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories, and at IBM.)
AZTEC. Those who remember their desperate attempts in high school to solve groups of equations with two, three or even four "unknowns" may be impressed that scientists today sometimes solve problems featuring several hundred million unknowns. But not easily.
The frustrations of a physicist or engineer who must slog through a mire of equations to solve an otherwise interesting problem can be lessened by Aztec. Aztec is a library of equation solvers developed at Sandia for very fast supercomputers. The group of solvers mean that scientists are relieved of a major computational burden and can focus more fully on the fundamental issues of their problems.
"Aztec has allowed Sandia to solve scientific computing problems previously unsolvable by any other means -- problems of importance to the Department of Energy and to U.S. industry," says Ray Tuminaro, Sandia project leader.
Aztec's approach is iterative, which means that it approximates a solution by repeatedly correcting an initial "guess." The method is faster than reducing large systems equation by equation, which can be laborious.
Aztec has helped make massively parallel computing a practical platform for large-scale simulations and design codes.
GEOSEIS MINI-HOLE SEISMIC SURFACE INITIATION SYSTEM. The earth doesn't come with signs on it pointing downward, saying, "This Way To The Oil," or to any other natural resource. So, once companies target a general area, how do they know precisely where to drill?
"One way is to put an array of little detonators and explosives in the ground, fire them, and when the echoes come back, you can map where the oil is," says Sandia researcher Bob Bickes, coinventor of the semiconductor bridge (SCB). The SCB is far more precise than previous methods in setting off explosions that aid seismic explorations: The more accurate the timing on the explosions, the sharper and more powerful the seismic wave, and the better the data collected from return echoes.
The SCB detonator ignites the energetic material pressed against the bridge in a few microseconds -- a formerly unattainable precision for low-energy initiators.
The SCB detonator used in GEOSEIS (trademarked) system is designed, manufactured and marketed by the Ensign Bickford Company in Simsbury, Conn. The SCB chip is designed and manufactured by SCB Technologies Inc., in Albuquerque, the exclusive licensee for commercialization of the SCB technology. The semiconductor bridge patent was the first wholly owned patent (1987) granted to Sandia.
CLIP-C, OR CLOSED LOOP INDUCTION PROCESS CONTROLLER. The horror of "morphing" in movies -- when the bad guy turns from a human into a vampire, or from a pool of mercury into a bad cop from the future -- is that no control is possible as the process is occurring. The good people have to wait until the process is finished, and the bad person appears intact at full strength.
The same waiting period could be said to happen in engineering, when a part being hardened begins to change its physical characteristics -- sometimes for the worst -- as it's being heated-treated. During this period, there's nothing to be done; the heating process goes dumbly on as the part takes shape. The result may be a bad part.
Using signals from the heat-treated part to control the induction process has been an unattainable goal for five decades. But under a partnership between Sandia and Delphi Saginaw Steering Systems (a subsidiary of General Motors), a system was developed and brought to the factory floor in less than three years, says Sandia principal investigator Phil Kahle.
The new technique, CLIP-C, monitors material as its physical characteristics change. It has five times less tolerance for error than previous methods. A feedback loop orders changes in operating conditions to take into account changes in materials.
Prior to introduction of the patented technique -- currently used to harden half-shafts for Saturn automobiles, and now being installed in Ford and Chrysler plants -- the only feedback in most systems was after the process was over. Inspectors would test a completed part and then keep it or toss it on the scrap pile. With CLIP-C, corrections to the process can be made in real time, so scrap losses are all but eliminated, and good parts are made more accurately.
PQ2000 POWERQUALITY SYSTEM. One of those awful power surges comes down your power line, heading for your hard drive. If you were clever, you've purchased a surge protector that will open your circuit, thus (hopefully) preventing your computer from frying. But you've lost information you haven't yet saved.
Large power users have even worse problems. Tens of billions of dollars in production losses, according to the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., occur annually because of power sags and momentary, 100 percent power losses which shut down microprocessor-controlled systems. (We notice these in our homes when the lights flicker and the VCR needs to be reprogrammed.)
The PQ 2000 is a battery-based, energy storage and delivery system designed to mitigate the effects of factory-wide power disturbances on sensitive electronic and electrical equipment, says Sandia project leader Garth Corey. It may also mitigate the effects of a power surge, sag or outage on a utility grid.
Rather than acting like a circuit breaker and shutting down a utility line, the PQ2000 monitors the line for voltage sags, swells or momentary interruptions. Sensing something amiss, the PQ2000 transfers the line in one four-hundredths of a second to stored battery energy. This acts as a high-power voltage source for up to 10 seconds before returning the equipment to normal power service as the momentary disturbance passes.
The system possesses the potential to provide wide area grid voltage support, and to reduce momentary peaks of demand for power that sometimes necessitate building entirely new power plants to accommodate them.
The work was done jointly by Sandia, the AC Battery Corporation (East Troy, WI), Electric Power Research Institute (Palo Alto, Calif.), Oglethorpe Power Corporation (Tucker, Ga.) and Pacific Gas and Electric Company (San Ramon, Calif.). DOE was an early sponsor of the project with Sandia.
Sandia was second in the total number of awards won in this year's competition. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which along with Sandia is operated for the U.S. Department of Energy by Lockheed Martin Corporation, won nine. Los Alamos, a DOE national laboratory also located in New Mexico, won six.
The bulk of the applications, which "number in the hundreds," come from industry, which won the lion's share in total number, said Vic Camello, of R&D Magazine.
Each entry is judged by "a minimum of six judges out of a volunteer pool of 51 from national labs and industry," said Camello. If judges reach a consensus on a product, the editors of R &D Magazine "generally do not presume to overrule them." But, when there are split decisions, "the editors take into account comments that are made by the judges, particularly if one has a particularly insightful view into the product."
Sandia is a multiprogram DOE laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy, and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.
Visuals: photos of winners available.
Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy.
Neal Singer, firstname.lastname@example.org (505) 845-7078