National Laboratories Pioneer Tech Innovations in Albuquerque, NM
National Laboratories Pioneer Tech Innovations
Sandia researchers tackle “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are complex problems that change when you apply a solution.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is nestled in the Jemez Mountains while Sandia National Laboratories is 100 miles away in Albuquerque, but together the two national laboratories exert a profound impact on Central New Mexico’s economy and culture.
Both labs are not only intimately linked to American and world history, but continue to make dramatic strides in nuclear energy, nanotechnology, bioscience, chemistry, computer science, earth and environmental sciences, materials science, and defense technologies. They remain two of the premier facilities in the nation’s national labs network.
Founded in 1949, Sandia remains broadly entrenched in areas such as nuclear technologies, but out of this has emerged “growth” technologies such as computer modeling. Sandia’s also become a world leader in robotics – including futuristic advances in “swarm intelligence” in which a team of robots known as “rattlers” can roam the desert and determine whether someone or something has breached a security zone.
One of the biggest areas of activity: Domestic security research, which has mushroomed here since 9/11, just as Cold War defense work has gone into remission.
Before 9/11, says Michael DeWitte, Sandia’s deputy director and group manager for public relations and communications, “a lot of things developed here that didn’t have an [immediate] application” but now can be used “in everyday security.” Swarm intelligence applications, for example, have been used for pods of robots that can “sense, analyze, think and act,” he says.
Sandia also developed the Sentinel – the commercial version of its so-called “explosion detection personnel portal” that is now in a pilot version at a handful of airports testing passengers for possible liquid explosives.
Meanwhile, DeWitte explains that as post-Cold War defense funding has declined, Sandia has directed its focus to the private sector as well – an important development for Albuquerque.
The Lab, for example, has worked closely with Intel and Goodyear in a project in which tire wear is simulated through complex computer models, saving the company the expense of exhaustive road testing.
Sandia’s impact on surrounding Albuquerque is clear: The Lab has 7,500 employees, with an additional 1,000 contractors, “and we’re kind of scattered all over the community,” says DeWitte. “We’ve grown very much like Albuquerque has over the years in many respects.”
Many of these employees – between 15 and 20 percent with Ph.D.s – are also heavily involved in volunteerism, as well. In 2007 alone, DeWitte says, they donated $3.4 million to the United Way, while many are involved Excellence in Science and Teaching programs, an outreach initiative that brings many of those Ph.D.s into the community to teach high school science.
On a per capita basis, the impact of Los Alamos on its surrounding community is even greater. There are just under 20,000 people in Los Alamos County, but a total of 10,924 employees working at the Lab. As a result, the median income in the county is among the highest in the United States, averaging $95,000 in 2004.
According to an LANL spokesman, “Los Alamos paid $911 million in salaries to its employees in the 2006 calendar year, and since salaries turn-over in local and regional economies several times, the Laboratory does have a great impact on its neighbors and the state.”
According to other LANL-released data, Los Alamos made $735 million in goods and purchases in fiscal 2007, with nearly half spent in Northern New Mexico, or over a seven-county region that includes Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Taos, Mora, San Miguel and Bernalillo counties. According to the LANL spokesman, “taking this one step further, 57.2 percent, or $420 million of the total $735 million in procurements, were made in New Mexico on large and small businesses.”