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Nuclear weapons research holds benefits for tech industry

Sandia National Laboratories’ Alec Talin inspects a silicon chip coated with a thin oxide layer, an array of platinum electrodes and a MOF film. Optical absorption and interference in the MOF and silicon-dioxide layers give it the deep blue color.

Research work performed at NNSA’s national laboratories generates fervor among scientists worldwide because it produces new technologies that are already proven and applied within the nuclear weapons program. By publishing their research findings, NNSA’s scientists encourage what can be called “passive tech transfer.”

Recently published work from a team of NNSA researchers won an award for its innovation, and perfectly embodies the way technology developed for the nuclear enterprise benefits other industries.

Sandia National Laboratories researcher Paul Vianco and his team from Sandia and Kansas City National Security Campus won an award for work on thin films, nanometer-thick layers of metal. The research enables technologies using specifically defined, precision electrical circuits.

Instead of a copper conductor circuit, a thin film patterned into a circuit provides finer lines and spaces, so the electronic component can be made smaller and do more at the same time. Smaller components weigh less and use less power.

The thin films technology could have significant potential for sensors and communications electronics, which is why the research was funded through Sandia’s and Kansas City’s stockpile stewardship programs.

“[The collaboration] significantly enhanced the ability of Sandia to design new components and of KCNSC to fabricate them into high-reliability products,” he said. “Publishing the results made the data available to the U.S. electronics industry.”

The award-winning research helps provide a way to define assembly processes and determine the long-term reliability of circuitry for critical, high-frequency components that absolutely must be safe, secure and reliable, like those used in nuclear weapons.

Since the 1970s, “folks ate up” research presented at technical conferences, Vianco said, because “they could take it back to their companies and put it directly to use on their products.”

“For those who never thought of using thin film,” Vianco said, “those folks are saying, ‘Maybe now we do know enough about this technology to try it on our products.’”

Sandia National Laboratories researcher Paul Vianco works on thin films, nanometer-thick layers of metal that can be defined into precision electrical circuits.