Sandia National Laboratories — headquartered in Albuquerque, MN, with a principal lab in Livermore, CA — is operated and managed by National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, LLC (a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International), which operates Sandia as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The SNIFFER chemical monitoring system has kept watch over large indoor and outdoor events such as the Super Bowl and the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia began in 1945 as Z Division, the ordnance design, testing, and assembly arm of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Although Sandia originated as a single-mission engineering organization for non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons, today it is a multi-program laboratory engaging in research supporting a broad spectrum of national security issues.

Research Foundations

Certain research areas are considered key to the success of Sandia’s national security programs. These areas — known as research foundations — underpin Sandia’s innovations. Research foundations represent technical areas of excellence — places where Sandia has a proven track record of offering unique capabilities.

The research foundations encompass a wide range of disciplines, ranging from the life and physical sciences, to microelectronics and information systems. Within each foundation, Sandia works with academic and business leadership to support essential research-and-discovery activities that translate into invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, economic opportunity, and public benefit. Sandia has chosen to invest in the following research foundations:

Bioscience: A deep understanding of biological systems, along with the ability to predict and control their behaviors. Research in biofuels and biodefense provides biological solutions to critical challenges in energy and homeland security.

Computing and Information Science: Goals are to increase capability while reducing the space and power requirements of future computing systems by changing the nature of computing devices, computer architecture, software, and algorithms; advance the underlying math and computer science necessary for the routine use of predictive simulation, design optimization, and margin and uncertainty quantifications; and shore up the nation’s cyber defenses and support good decision-making by cyber defenders.

Engineering Science: This foundation leads engineering transitions in advanced, highly critical systems by integrating theory development, experimental discovery and diagnostics, modeling, and computational approaches to refine understanding of complex behavior in engineered systems.

Geoscience: Knowledge of the Earth’s subsurface properties, structure and processes, and surface and atmospheric phenomena, as well as how engineered systems interact with the Earth, can help Sandia contribute solutions to areas of national importance, including energy security, defense, intelligence, nuclear weapons, disaster response, and climate security.

Police officers can instantly determine whether a suspect has recently fired a gun by using the Instant Shooter ID Kit, which detects gunshot residue in a matter of minutes, eliminating the need to wait for lab tests.

Materials Science: Materials science focus areas are predicting performance and reliability; control of energy, mass, and charge transfer; developing new materials; computational materials synthesis and processing; and novel characterization, and diagnostic tools and techniques.

Nanodevices and Microsystems: Works to increase understanding of physical phenomena across the quantum to microscale continuum, create novel nano and microscale devices, achieve new methods of integration, and realize novel microsystems-based complex systems.

Radiation Effects and High Energy Density Science: Seeks to advance science and engineering in the areas of radiation effects sciences, high energy density science, and pulsed-power science and technology to address critical national security issues.

Technology Milestones

Sandia’s nuclear weapons work has benefited research efforts across the labs and in U.S. technology for more than 60 years. A number of Sandia-developed technologies have helped to solve national and global threats.

To assess the threat of onboard explosions from terrorist bombs, Sandia developed computer models that predict the damage caused by different types of explosives in various locations of passenger aircraft. The work is being used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to develop new requirements for explosives detection. (Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

Radar for weapon delivery systems developed decades ago provided the base for Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which is vital to military and intelligence communities, and may help defeat a major threat to U.S. troops: improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Sandia conducts major efforts aimed at preventing the global spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Technologies range from microscopic sensors to large intelligence-gathering systems that help monitor compliance with international treaties, theft or diversion of nuclear materials, and biological and chemical weapons programs. In 2000, Sandia launched the Multispectral Thermal Imager (MTI) satellite — the first satellite designed and built wholly by Sandia. MTI is still used today to monitor treaty provisions, map chemical spills, detect pollution from waste streams in lakes and rivers, and detect volcanic activity.

A Sandia chemical monitoring system called SNIFFER has been keeping watch for the past several years over a number of large indoor and outdoor events, such as the Super Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the 2008 Democratic National Convention. SNIFFER detects and provides early warning of airborne chemical agents that might be used in a terrorist attack.

In 2003, PROTECT became the nation’s first permanently installed detection and response system for chemical attacks in a public facility when it was deployed in the Washington, DC Metro.

Police officers are now able to instantly determine whether a suspect has recently fired a gun by using a chemical test called the Instant Shooter ID Kit. It detects gunshot residue in a matter of minutes, eliminating the need to wait for lab tests, which often take weeks.

When the Pathfinder spacecraft hit the surface of Mars on July 4, 1997, it bounced and rolled rather than crash-landing, largely as a result of airbags designed by Sandia and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The airbags were based on parachute technology developed for nuclear weapons.

The ability to detect hydrogen — a colorless, odorless, flammable gas — is critical wherever hydrogen is produced, used, stored, or transported. A Sandia-developed sensor with the ability to detect hydrogen was commercialized for use in petroleum refining, hydrogen production, and nuclear facilities.

Sandia developed a cost-effective robotic hand that can be used in disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The hand is dexterous enough to mimic the capabilities of the human hand. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

To assess the threat of onboard explosions from terrorist bombs, Sandia developed computer models that predict the damage caused by different types of explosives in various locations of passenger aircraft. This work, done in conjunction with homemade explosives testing, is being used by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) to develop new requirements for explosives detection technology used for security checkpoints, checked baggage, and air cargo. The familiar walk-through portals at many airport security checkpoints use Sandia technology to screen airline passengers for explosives. Even trace amounts of explosives on a individual’s skin or clothing can be collected and identified using the technology.

Sandia assisted the FBI in investigating anthrax-containing letters mailed in 2001 to several news media offices and two U.S. senators. Using advanced microanalysis tools developed for nuclear weapons work, hundreds of samples were analyzed and it was determined that the anthrax was not prepared to disperse more readily through the use of additives — a crucial finding that helped guide the FBI investigation.

The shoe bomb Richard Reid allegedly tried to detonate on a transatlantic flight, and a device found in the cabin of the convicted Unabomber were disabled using a bomb squad tool originally developed at Sandia. The device, called the Percussion-Actuated Nonelectric (PAN) Disrupter, is used by bomb squads nationwide.

After the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, NASA needed a way to inspect the shuttles’ thermal protection shield prior to landing. A Sandia-developed sensor and robotic arm system, allowing the crew to check for tiny cracks and other damage, was flown on 12 shuttle missions.

Invented in the 1960s at Sandia, rolamites were used to trigger the deployment of automobile airbags until they were replaced in the mid-1990s by electronic triggering sensors. Originallly developed to detect a nuclear warhead’s acceleration pattern, the rolamite switch is a basic mechanical device consisting of a roller suspended within a tensioned band.

Pressure sores among wheelchair users are a common problem, often leading to serious complications or death. Sandia helped develop a wheelchair cushion based on microprocessor-controlled inflatable air pockets that inflate and deflate to help prevent and heal pressure ulcers.