‘Taking it to the next level’ for biodefense

SPIN DOCTORS — From left,Sandia’s Matt Piccini (8621), Chung-Yan Koh (8621), and Anup Singh (8620) lead the SpinDx team. The hope is that a new NIH-funded project that takes advantage of SpinDx technology will take the device to a new level and result in a point-of-care instrument that can detect a suite of biothreat agents. (Photo by Jeff McMillan)

by Mike Janes

Latest NIH award aims for instrument capable of detecting botulinum, ricin, anthrax, other agents of concern

 First, in the early 1990s, came MicroChemLab. Then, in the early-to-mid 2000s, the “saliva device” and a follow-up technology, RapiDx. Those microfluidics-based platforms eventually led to SpinDx, unveiled earlier this summer as the latest in a line of medical diagnostic tools developed at Sandia. Many were created under the guidance of Anup Singh (8620), acting senior manager for the biological science and technology group located at the Labs’ California and New Mexico sites.

With that string of successes, it was hardly a surprise when Sandia was awarded another major award recently — nearly $4 million over four years — from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH. NIH has funded a number of projects at Sandia over the past few years.

“This was our plan: to build on our successes, hire good people, and not rest on our laurels,” Anup says.

With the latest NIH award, Anup says the objective is very clear: His team is tasked with producing a point-of-care instrument — one ready for the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval — that can detect a suite of biothreat agents, including anthrax, ricin, botulinum, shiga, and SEB toxin.

“This is currently an unmet need for the nation’s biodefense program,” says Anup. “A point-of-care device does not exist.”

The device, once developed, approved by FDA, and commercialized, would most likely be used in emergency rooms in the event of a bioterrorism incident.

“This will take things to the next level,” Anup says. In addition to the broader suite of toxins and bacterial agents that the device would test for, the other unique aspect of the project is that comprehensive testing with animal (mouse) samples will be conducted.

“Before, with other instruments we’ve developed, we would purchase blood, spike it with toxins, then test the blood. Now, we will take a live animal specimen, feed it botulinum and other toxins, then screen the blood of the mice to see if it can be detected. For shiga toxin, we will also try to get samples from naturally infected humans to test.”

Closer to the translational elements of research

This is an important step, Anup says, since toxins may behave differently in live animals and humans than they do in laboratory blood samples. “We are getting closer and closer to translational elements of research, which involves testing in animal and clinical facilities. This is part of the maturation of our bioresearch activities,” he says.

The project will also expand the technical capability of the SpinDx platform.

“When you look for bacterial agents, you don’t want to rely solely on proteins because you won’t get the detection sensitivity you need,” explains Anup. “So we are also using other methods that may lead to better detection limits and additional confirmation.”

The new NIH project includes collaborators possessing both animal modeling and device manufacturing expertise.

The University of Texas Medical Branch, with whom Sandia enjoys a years-long partnership, together with the US Department of Agriculture’s Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., will provide Sandia with expert insight into toxins as well as animal lab facilities and expertise on diseases. Bio-Rad, a manufacturer and distributor of a variety of devices and laboratory technologies, will serve as a consultant on the project and will help evaluate plans for product development, assist with manufacturers’ criteria on the device that is developed, and provide important feedback on building a prototype device.

Although the latest NIH award represents a continuing success story for Sandia’s microfluidics/bioresearch work, Anup stresses that it was part of a thoughtful strategy that has been followed for several years.

“You’ve got to keep innovating and coming up with the next thing,” says Anup. “Every technology has its lifecycle. As good as SpinDx is, we know there will be other technologies, better technologies, that come along in the next few years. We have to continue to innovate to meet the needs of our customers, understand what other competing technologies are being designed to solve the problems, and develop technologies that provide an improvement.”

The need for diagnostic devices in the biodefense area is not going away any time soon, Anup says, since there are always new diseases springing up for which good diagnostic assays aren’t available.

“Plus, we want these devices to be dual-use,” he adds. “We’re not just going to wait for the next anthrax letter incident to happen for our devices to be used and tested; we want to be useful for other things as well, like infectious diseases. We ask ourselves: Can we use something like this [SpinDx or other, yet-to-be-developed devices] for the next SARS? What about the next swine flu outbreak? When we think of bio-threats, we think of man-made problems. But what about nature-made problems?”

Those two areas, he says, will keep Sandia’s bioresearch efforts engaged for years to come.

“That’s where the value of the national labs really comes in. With long-term problems that require a sustained effort, our capabilities and culture are a very good fit. Sponsors like NIH have begun to realize this, which is what they’re essentially telling us with this latest award. It takes more than one grant to solve big problems like these.”


A team success

Like so many complex Sandia technical efforts, the SpinDx project would not be a success without important contributions from a number of important team members.

Chung-Yan Koh (8621) leads the development of the assays in SpinDx, while Matt Piccini (8621) leads the design and development of the device and its full functionality. Post-doc Scott Moen (8621) set up a testing facility at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and UTMB’s Johnny Peterson and Michael Leffelholz provided access to facilities and samples for testing of SpinDx.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth have also been key collaborators on the SpinDx project. Larry Stanker and Luisa Cheng at USDA have provided antibodies and animal samples for testing, while BR Singh and Easwaran Ravichandran at UM-Dartmouth have provided substrates and animal samples.

Finally, SpinDx never would have gotten off the ground without the efforts of former Sandians Greg Sommer and Ulrich Schaff, who led the early development of the technology. Greg and Ulrich are both on entrepreneurial leave and have founded a company to commercialize the technology.

-- Mike Janes

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Alloy developed at Sandia has potential for downhole electronics applications in wells

RESEARCHER TOM CRENSHAW (1831) sets up a specimen in a test frame that will pull the solder joint apart to determine its tensile strength. Tom co-authored a paper that won the Best of Proceedings category in the Surface Mount Technology Association’s International 2012 Best Papers conference.          (Photo by Norman Johnson)

by Sue Major Holmes

An alloy that may improve high-temperature electronics in oil and geothermal wells was really a solution in search of a problem, says Sandia’s Paul Vianco.

Sandia first investigated the gold-silver-germanium alloy about 15 years ago as a possible bonding material in a new neutron tube product. But a design change forced Sandia to shelve the material, says Paul (1831).

Then a few years ago, researchers working on projects with applications inside wells, referred to as downhole, asked the Labs’ geothermal group to develop electronics that can be used to monitor well conditions to keep field operations running efficiently. Circuit boards placed downhole in oil and geothermal wells must withstand high temperatures and pressures, excessive vibrations, and other harsh conditions.

The gold-silver-germanium alloy would be suitable for that environment,  Paul says.

It’s technically a solder, but it’s at the upper limits for what’s considered a solder — materials that melt at no higher temperature than 450 degrees Celsius. The American Welding Society deems materials that melt at higher temperatures as brazing filler metals.

Sandia fills niche in downhole uses

The alloy’s potential for downhole electronics gives Sandia a unique niche, Paul says.

Most brazing processes occur at a peak temperature above about 700 degrees C, while most soldering occurs below 350 degrees C, leaving high-temperature electronics few filler materials from which to choose.

“So there’s this no man’s land in which the only materials available are aluminum-based brazing alloys that melt at about 600 degrees C,” Paul says. But aluminum-based alloys are difficult to process for electronics.

In addition, the gold-silver-germanium alloy is lead-free, making it environmentally friendly for geothermal work in countries such as Iceland, which, like the rest of Europe, is moving away from materials containing lead. The alloy’s fundamental mechanical and processing properties also are nearly fully characterized. That’s important because it saves about two years of development that would be required to establish how well the alloy makes a reliable solder joint, Paul says.

“All that’s done,” he says. “We have the preliminary work completed that allows us to consider this material for a range of applications, including downhole electronics.”

Alloy developed from earlier work

The alloy originally was developed from the gold-germanium system, which has traditionally been a die attachment material used in microelectronics packaging. But the neutron tube application required a higher melting temperature, so Paul and colleagues John J. Stephens, now deceased, and F. Michael Hosking, now retired, added silver and adjusted the concentrations to reach a near-uniform melting point for the alloy.

“It was so close to brazing that we didn’t think that there would be much interest in the electronics industry until the option came up for downhole applications,” Paul says.

He’d like to develop the material to a prototype stage for geothermal and oil and gas well tools. “We really think it is a material that’s suitable for these higher temperature applications,” Paul says. “In this no man’s land of filler metal technology, there are really not a lot of options out there other than lead-containing alloys. Companies are exploring lead-bearing solders, albeit begrudgingly so.”

When interest in downhole applications arose, information on the alloy from the mid-1990s needed to be pulled together, says Paul, who has worked in soldering and brazing technology at Sandia for 26 years. He and his colleagues resurrected and re-evaluated the data, and Paul wrote a paper assessing its properties. That wasn’t as easy as it might sound.

“Photographs were all on film; we had to scan these pictures into an electronic format. Documents and presentations were in unusable formats or archived on software that is no longer supported by the Labs. So everything was brought up to a level that is compatible with current computer resources,” he says.

Paper compiled research data

The paper, “Ag-Au-Ge Alloys for High Temperature Geothermal and Oil Well Electronics Applications,” won the Best of Proceedings category in the Surface Mount Technology Association International 2012 Best Papers conference announced in January. Paul will receive the award at SMTA’s meeting in October in Fort Worth, Texas.

He wrote the paper largely to compile the data in case interest developed within the oil, gas, and geothermal industries, and he hadn’t planned to submit it for publication. But SMTA International, aware of Sandia’s leadership role in soldering technology, asked the Labs to provide a paper for a session on alternative solders for electronic applications, so Paul submitted it.

He believes Sandia might be able to use the gold-silver-germanium alloy as a joining material in high-precision components.

The paper and the publicity surrounding the award have raised awareness of the alloy as well as the growing need for high-temperature materials for downhole electronics, Paul says. “This is how tech transfer works the best — publish the material and let the folks who have the need become aware of it and then work with their specific applications,” he says.

-- Sue Major Holmes

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Venture forth: Sandians bring lab experience to the world of business

Laurence Brown, Matt Donnelly, and Jim Pacheco, recipients of Sandia's 2013 Entrepreneurial Awards.

by Nancy Salem

 It takes a certain kind of person to leave Sandia for a job at a startup company. “You have to be willing to take a risk, move out of your comfort zone, and do something you might not be able to do otherwise,” says Laurence Brown (160).

Laurence took the risk and it opened new professional doors. Matt Donnelly (2997) stepped away and learned what it meant to be a manager. Jim Pacheco’s (6634) foray gave him a first-hand look at the free market.

Laurence, Matt, and Jim left Sandia to work in business through a program that encourages researchers to take technology out of the Labs and into the private sector. Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology (ESTT) was started in 1994, and since then 144 Sandians have left the Labs, 57 of them to start a business and 85 to help expand an existing one. Ninety-six companies, most of them in New Mexico, have been impacted by ESTT.

The program guarantees Sandia employees reinstatement if they return within two years, and a third-year extension can be requested. Forty-one Sandians returned to Sandia from ESTT and 97 did not. Six are currently on ESTT leave.

Laurence, Matt, and Jim all returned to the Labs from the business world. On Feb. 26, acting VP and Chief Technology Officer Julia Phillips honored them at the third annual Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards Luncheon. The event was hosted by Sandia and sponsored by Technology Ventures Corp.

Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology & Economic Development Dept. 7933, says the awards recognize Sandia’s legacy of entrepreneurship. “We initiated the Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards as a way to recognize and celebrate Sandia entrepreneurs,” she says. “It’s also a way to highlight Sandia’s ESTT program.”

Information highway

Laurence used ESTT in 1995, six years after joining Sandia as a researcher in thin-film and vacuum system design. He and some partners founded Advanced Tribal Integrated Information Networks, or ATIIN, a company offering Internet-based services to Native American tribes and businesses.

“The vision was to use the Web for multimedia purposes, as a tool for national and international native communities,” he says. “It was a way to create a presence on the Internet for communities that might not have that infrastructure.”

ATIIN, the Navajo word for “highway,” built an online marketplace called Native CyberTrade for Indian businesses and developed educational and language tools. The company installed intranet infrastructure for native communities throughout the Southwest. “It was early in the Internet revolution. It was taking off across the world,” Laurence says. “The native community was not yet up to speed. We were early in getting out there.”

Laurence, who was CEO of ATIIN and did business and partnership development, sold the company in 1997 and returned to Sandia. He came back with a vast network of Native American contacts. “That’s the story of my return,” he says. “My contacts and visibility formed the foundation of new work.”

Laurence moved from R&D into business development, and built a tribal program at Sandia. “I coordinate technical assistance and partnerships with tribal governments that align with our national security mission,” says Laurence, who is now tribal program manager in the Government Relations department. “I develop strategic relationships nationwide.”

A better container

Matt joined Sandia in 1988 in mechanical process engineering and moved into plastics applications, including fabrication and use of composites. A group of Albuquerque entrepreneurs wanted to develop an aerospace transportation container made of durable composite materials.

They approached Sandia for assistance and collaboration in 1998. Matt was tapped to work with the group on composites. “I helped steer them to a honeycomb sandwich-panel construction,” he says. “The honeycomb was polypropylene and the skins polypropylene glass. Through collaboration we found the right material for the containers.”

The group formed a company, Aerobox Composite Structures LLC. There was commercial interest in the containers, and with funds from an initial public offering Aerobox established a manufacturing plant in Bernalillo, aiming to make 15,000 units a year.

The company needed a manufacturing and engineering manager, and Matt left through ESTT in 2004 to step into the role. “I helped them get set up, get production capability going, and troubleshoot the problems,” he says. “My goal was to get them on their feet.”

Matt stayed 14 months, at which point Aerobox had 60 employees and was producing containers. “We helped them develop a world-class product,” he says. “The standard product is aluminum post-and-beam with aluminum skins. They damage easily and there is a constant need to pull units out and repair them. Ours stayed in the field six to eight times longer.”

Matt returned to Sandia with the skills to become a manager, currently leading the Design Methods & Quality Dept. 2997. “Aerobox was the biggest management job I had done to date,” he says. “The experience served me well. I learned a lot about managing in the real world.”

Follow the sun

 Jim’s focus at Sandia was in concentrating solar power (CSP). He worked in CSP development programs for 15 years after coming to the Labs in 1987. One of them was Solar Two, a large solar power plant built in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, Calif.

 The commercial demonstration project, capable of producing 10 megawatts of electricity, was a joint project of 11 organizations led by Southern California Edison Co. in partnership with DOE. Sandia was the technical adviser.

“It demonstrated thermal storage. You could collect energy during the day and dispatch it in the evening or night, producing power when the sun was not shining,” Jim says. “It was a very successful project in that it led to a number of such power plants being built by other companies around the world.”

Jim had been involved with Solar Two through concept, design, construction, test, and evaluation. His reputation spread, and he was recruited by several companies when CSP technology took off in the marketplace.

Jim left Sandia through ESTT in 2008 and joined eSolar, a Burbank, Calif., startup that was developing a 5-megawatt commercial demonstration project in Lancaster. He stayed with the company three years. “I helped them with key performance evaluations, developed the thermal storage system, generated several patent applications, and helped them win a DOE contract award,” Jim says. “I helped steer the company toward more advanced technology.”

He returned to Sandia and the CSP department and later moved to Active Response & Denial Dept. 6634 developing security technologies.

Jim says his ESTT experience taught him how the venture capital system works. “It’s really fascinating,” he says. “When companies have capital and direction, they can move fast. Things happen quickly. I got a first-hand look at how the free-market system works.”

* * *

 Jim, Matt, and Laurence all say ESTT was rewarding and educational, and that they would recommend it to anyone with entrepreneurial thoughts. “The beauty of this is that there is a safety net,” Laurence says. “You can come back to Sandia.”

Jim says he felt he made a difference and helped lead eSolar in a successful direction. “I gave them my experience,” he says.

“I’m a big fan of the program,” Matt says. “It’s a way to help create jobs in New Mexico. It helps the local economy and it benefits Sandia.”

Laurence says ESTT is in line with Sandia’s philosophy of encouraging people to challenge themselves and try different careers. “I had a goal. I wanted to be a business owner, and I was.”

-- Nancy Salem

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