Sandia’s telemetry work ramps up as weapons program intensifies

WEAPON PERFORMANCE DATA COLLECTORS — Brett Chavez and Jerrod Peterson (both 8135) build and test high-performance instrumentation systems for ground and flight tests.  (Photo by Dino Vournas)

by Michael Padilla


As Sandia’s nuclear weapons program continues to execute three full-scale engineering development programs to help extend the life of the stockpile, Sandia’s Telemetry Systems departments have seen a dramatic increase in their work in designing, building, and testing high-performance instrumentation systems for ground and flight tests.

These organizations are responsible for developing data instrumentation systems to support various nuclear weapons programs for the DoD and NNSA.

The systems created at Sandia/California are used by weapon development and stockpile evaluation programs to collect weapon performance data, which is used in qualification activities and annual assessments.

The next generation of telemetry systems

Since the early 1980s, Sandia/California has helped lead the telemetry systems work for the Joint Test Assembly (JTA) program for the nuclear security enterprise. Currently, the California groups are working on several new telemetry systems to support the W88 ALT 370, B61-12, W80-4, and Mk21 fuze program.

In addition to the high number of simultaneous development programs being supported, the amount of hardware being requested by these programs is at an all-time high. The telemetry groups do a large majority of this hardware development before transitioning it to the National Security Campus in Kansas City, Missouri. In today’s environment of high-rigor qualification activities, the amount of hardware needed over the life of the program development to support their system-level test units has increased from a few handfuls in the past to today’s steady stream  of test units for the W88 ALT370 and B61-12.

Fully prototyped and proven operational

 These newest telemetry (TM) designs also include new features. For example, earlier this year, the B61-12 telemetry team added a data recording capability to its instrumentation system design. The team’s goal was to ensure all contact fuzing end-event data will be captured during surveillance flight tests.

“This recorder — christened the HDR (hardened data recorder) — must be capable of recording all critical weapon-scoring data in milliseconds while surviving free-fall ground impacts,” says Ryan Layton (8133). “A team of engineers from 8133 took on the challenge of building a smaller version  of the HDR, leveraging the experience they gained building the B61 JTA modernization flight recorder.”

“The HDR is a small part of the B61-12 JTA telemetry system that plays a big role,” says Tim Kostka (8133). “Its job is to record and store data critical to assessing the reliability of the weapon.”

This is achieved by containing the electronics in a stainless steel housing and encapsulating them using dense, rigid foam. As part of the design process, the HDR will go through rigorous testing, including shock testing, before it is delivered and flown in the system.

The HDR has already been fully prototyped and proven operational during benchtop testing. From mid-August through September the product will undergo physical and thermal testing for performance at high temperatures, extreme cold temperatures, and a range of  other environmental and mechanical conditions.

Development of new capabilities and technologies

Another challenge for these groups is finding ways to provide more and more data while still living within system-level design constraints.

The W88 ALT370 team recently successfully delivered units for an Environmental Development JTA (EDJTA). The purpose of the EDJTA flight bodies was to gather data as seen by the weapon throughout a typical flight profile. This information will be used to help create and validate environmental requirements for Weapon Reserve components. These units captured multiple channels of data from sensors located throughout the flight test body.

To be able to monitor the multiple channels of data at the requested sampling rate and transmission bandwidth needed by the W88 systems organization, the TM engineers needed to come up with a more efficient way of collecting and transmitting data.

They did this with two new design features. One was the implementation of a new compression algorithm, which allowed three times as many sensors to be monitored as would have been possible without compression.

“The algorithm allows transmission of the same or similar information in fewer numbers of bits,” says Bruce Brunett (8943). “In telemetry systems the goal is to balance between the amount of information conveyed and the bandwidth used in the transmission.”

There is a constant push to get more data from the units. But the limiting factor is the receiving assets on the ground that constrain the amount of information that is sent. The main objective was figuring out a way to get more information with fewer bits.

“The system was pretty challenging to implement,” says Jerrod Peterson (8135). “The work was driven by a real application, customer request, and also based on goals for the program. The challenge was placed on the team and we made leaps in capabilities.”

The compression algorithm is also currently being used by other program telemetry teams as well.   

The second enabling feature in the W88 EDJTA bodies was the incorporation of a new transmitter that uses RF bandwidth more efficiently than the pulse code modulation — PCM — used in previous transmitter designs. Use of this modulation method allows a substantially greater percentage of data to be transmitted within the same RF bandwidth allocations.

A new battery pack

The W88 ALT TM also uses a new battery pack designed and developed by Sandia in Albuquerque. The new battery allows the TM to record environmental data prior to launch   while the unit is still with the launch vehicle. This is a first for JTAs.

Typically a chemical battery is activated after launch and there is no way to collect in-tube data. Getting enough capacity in a small volume and getting certification for the battery to be flown during the test were two hurdles the group had to overcome. The battery went through extreme testing until approved for usage.

The telemetry groups work closely with organizations throughout the Laboratories and rely on them to meet delivery of the products

 “Our work touches so many organizations including design engineering, shipping and receiving, test facilities, epoxy lab, and materials lab,” says Kathryn Hughes (8133). “All those people have done a wonderful job in supporting the telemetry systems groups in meeting its mission.”

Jennifer Clark (8135) adds, “We would not be able to fulfill our mission without them and because of these interdependencies, our engineers get to learn about the wide variety of capabilities and support that the laboratory has.”

The TM groups also interact with every weapon system since every system utilizes a TM system developed by these organizations. This gives these engineers a strong insight into the systems designs. “This makes TM a good stepping-stone for designers wanting to eventually to move into systems work,” says Jennifer.

In addition to this internal collaboration, the TM organizations work closely with partners at other DOE sites.

The future

There doesn’t appear to be any downturn in work for the telemetry groups any time soon. Within the next few years, as the current programs ramp down the W80-4 will be ramping up and several weapon systems groups are planning JTA refreshes.

In addition to this, the teams would like to invest in some new R&D activities including improved detonation monitoring and various kinds of optical sensing.

“We have a bright future,” says Jennifer. “We get to design, build, test, and deliver lots of hardware which not everyone here onsite gets to do and we learn from each iteration. It’s an exciting and challenging environment for our engineers.”


-- Michael Padilla

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Algae nutrient recycling a triple win

Ryan Davis and Sandia colleagues have developed a method to recycle critical and costly algae cultivation nutrients phosphate and nitrogen. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

by Patti Koning

Nitrogen and phosphate nutrients are among the biggest costs in cultivating algae for biofuels. Sandia molecular biologists Todd Lane (8633) and Ryan Davis (8624) have shown they can recycle about two-thirds of those critical nutrients, and aim to raise the recycling rate to close to 100 percent.

Recycling nitrogen and phosphate has benefits that go far beyond cost. While nitrogen can be produced through a costly artificial nitrogen fixation process using natural gas and atmospheric nitrogen, phosphate is a limited natural resource that can be toxic at high concentration.

“We have a finite amount of phosphate in the world, but it’s in high demand as a fertilizer. Half of the phosphates that go into our crops in the form of fertilizer end up in the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to hypoxic zones,” says Todd. Better known as “dead zones,” hypoxic zones are areas of low oxygen concentration that kill or drive out marine life.

Economic models show that replacing just 10 percent of liquid transportation fuels with algal-derived fuels, though beneficial to the environment in many ways, could double fertilizer consumption, which, in turn, would drive up the cost of food.

But recycling phosphates means everyone wins: algal-derived biofuels producers, farmers, and the environment. “By recycling phosphates from one batch of algae to the next, we save money, no longer compete with agriculture for a non-renewable resource, and keep those phosphates out of the environment,” says Todd.

Todd and Ryan are considering other applications for their closed-loop algae nutrient recycling methods.

“Our method could be used to strip phosphates from the agricultural runoff before it reaches the Salton Sea,” says Ryan. Fertilizer runoff into the saltwater sea, California’s largest lake, has led to dead zones that threaten fish and other wildlife. “Those nutrients that would otherwise further contribute to the dead zone could be used to grow algae intentionally for biofuels and other biobased commodities.”

Osmotic shock key to releasing phosphates

Todd and Ryan found their nutrient recycling method works on many different algae feedstocks, even mixed feedstocks. Because algae have more genetic diversity than any other organism, many methods developed in the past haven’t worked universally.

The researchers use a fairly simple process, osmotic shock, to liberate phosphate from the cultivated algae. “We shock the algae with fresh water while controlling certain conditions like pH and temperature. This disrupts the internal structure of the cell and releases naturally occurring enzymes,” says Todd. “These enzymes chew up the cell and rapidly release the phosphates.”

The next step is fermentation to convert the nitrogen, which is mostly in the form of amino acids, into ammonia. The phosphates and ammonia are then recombined — with help from magnesium, present in great quantities in the algal biomass — to form struvite, a solid salt.

In 2014, a Sandia team proved the method with 20 weeks of continuous recycling and reuse of phosphates and nutrients. They were able to carry more than 60 to 80 percent of the nutrients from batch to batch.

“Every two weeks, we recycled the nutrients and fed them back into the next batch of algae,” says Ryan. “The process worked better than we expected, as we saw enhanced growth with the recycled nutrients. We aren’t quite sure why this happened. It could be from trace metals carried over in the phosphate.”

Lipid extraction enables nutrient recycling

The algae nutrient recycling research is part of a larger project funded by DOE’s BioEnergy Technologies Office, part of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program. The Sandia team’s partners include Texas A&M AgriLife Research, which grows marine strains of algae, and Texas-based Open-Algae, which patented methods to lyse algal cells and recover algal lipids without using solvent. Recovered algal oils could be turned into fuel.

“We were very interested in OpenAlgae’s lipid extraction because it doesn’t use solvents, so the biomass is left in a native conformation that works very well with our process,” says Todd.

OpenAlgae’s method subjects algae cells to high-energy electromagnetic pulses that rupture the cell walls and cause the cells to burst, releasing the lipids. In this disrupted state, the algae cells are much more susceptible to osmotic shock.

The nutrient recycling process also releases more compounds that can be turned into fuels. “There is a lot of protein in biomass and that soaks up the nitrogen. As we’re liberating the ammonia, we’re also capturing that carbon so it can be turned into fuel,” says Ryan.

Better and easier nutrient recycling

Todd and Ryan are working to further refine their method to recycle more of the nutrients, including a collaboration with James Liao of the University of California, Los Angeles, to genetically refine their fermentation strain to increase yield and extract different fuel products. Liao runs the Metabolic Engineering and Synthetic Biology Laboratory and is chairman of the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering and the department of bioengineering.

Another facet of the project is the development of a reactor system to capture the ammonia as the biomass is fermented to release phosphates. Currently, these steps are performed separately. 

“The goal is a one-pot system,” says Ryan. “That will be the tipping point for scaling up our method. We grew 2 liters of algae in our 20-week test. The next step is to grow 3,000 liters in our raceways.” Later this year, Sandia will open three 1,000-liter raceway testbeds, shallow artificial ponds for algae cultivation.

Pond-side processing is another goal. A single module combining lipid extraction and nutrient recycling could separate biomass into nutrients and fuel at a cultivation facility.

Panning for phosphate gold

Todd and Ryan think their method could help the environment if applied to agricultural runoff.

Nutrient recycling is like panning for gold — or in this case, phosphates — anywhere that fertilizer-laden agricultural runoff enters bodies of water. The key, says Todd, is getting the concentrated runoff before it enters the body of water and dilutes.

“Our method can’t fix the existing dead zones,” says Todd. “But it can stop them from growing. The irony is that those nutrients are so valuable to growing plants, but so damaging when they flow into large bodies of water. Isaac Asimov famously called phosphates ‘life’s bottleneck.’ We aim to put an end to that bottleneck.”



-- Patti Koning

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Cyber Technologies Academy reaches out to teachers

Cyber Technologies Academy Boot Camp developers include, bottom row, left to right: Anuj Kak, Samantha MacIlwaine, Makena Harmon, Evan Laufer (all 8965), and, top row, CW Perr and Steve Hurd (both 8966). (Photo by Dino Vournas)

by Michael Padilla

Two hands-on Cyber Technologies Academy (CTA) teacher boot camps were recently held at Sandia/California to help improve and promote cyber security education.

Levi Loyd (8965) says the boot camps are an excellent way to reach out to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers who want to broaden their cybersecurity curriculum. The boot camps provided teachers with cyber lessons and training exercises they can take back to classrooms, thus helping prepare students for careers in cybersecurity.

“We have been involved in cyber-security education primarily focusing on students for quite a while,” says Levi. “We wanted to expand our focus and reach out to teachers to help engage students and get them interested in cybersecurity at an early age.”

Funded through Sandia’s corporate outreach program, the boot camps had more than 40 participants this summer. Teachers participating in the program came from across the state, including Fremont, Oakland, Sacramento, and southern California.

Force multiplier effect

Jeremy Erickson (8965) says by reaching out to teachers, the CTA multiplies its outreach efforts. Because of space, time, and budget constraints, Sandia can only reach out to approximately 250 students per year, but by reaching out to teachers, they in turn can potentially reach more students, he says. 

“If 10 teachers each teach 50 or 100 students in their computer classes, we suddenly have expanded that reach to 500 or 1,000 students instead of just the normal number of students we reach out to each year,” he says.

Part of the goal in establishing the teacher boot camp, Jeremy says, was to deliver enough material to the teachers so they can then replicate the material to students.

“We are not educators,” he says. “We are scientists, researchers, and engineers. The idea was to partner up with professional educators who know how to teach and how to educate. We can provide the technical component that they may not be capable of doing.”

As part of the boot camp, Sandia provides teachers with a customizable learning platform in the form of a bootable Linux USB disk. This helps allow schools to boot directly from this Linux disk, leaving school systems able to stand alone.

Developing, strengthening collaborations

Last summer Sandia hosted several teachers from South Carolina and continues to strengthen its relationship with Project Lead The Way, a provider of K-12 STEM programs.

Carol Kinnard, associate director of instruction with Project Lead The Way in Indianapolis, Indiana, says the boot camp helped her better understand the ethical issues around cybersecurity, the Linux operating system as it applies to file structures and networking. She also said the boot camp helped her better understand how Internet protocols work and how some networking tools enabled her to protect some systems while exposing others to network penetrations.

She says Project Lead The Way will be developing a cybersecurity course that will be part of its high school computer science path.

“We are very interested in collaborating with Sandia, acknowledging that they are an industry leader in securing computer systems at all levels,” she says. “As we bring our national computer science curriculum to schools around the country, we are committed to staying relevant and timely, and we recognize cybersecurity is a pressing issue we all need to address.”

Chris Lorenz, instructor with Allied Health Academy at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley, California, says although the bootcamp was very challenging mentally, the Sandia instructors kept the teachers on track and answered all the questions to ensure they were successful.

“I would highly recommend this class to anyone who is interested in cybersecurity,” he says. “To actually work with industry professionals, such as those from the Sandia Labs, was so helpful and encouraging. The instructors were very knowledgeable and very helpful to all students. I also was impressed by how they addressed each student’s needs from the most experienced to the beginner.”

Lorenz says having access to Sandia’s materials and classroom program is a huge plus. He says he now has the tools to return to the classroom and begin teaching. 

“I also feel I have a huge support system from the Sandia instructors and other staff if I run into any problems,” he says.

Future teacher boot camps are being planned and as Sandia continues to partner with more schools, offerings will be refined to address school-specific constraints or concerns.


-- Michael Padilla

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