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LANL puts R&D to work in the big leagues

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About a dozen former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists are quietly developing some cutting-edge technologies for the oil and gas industry at a newly established R&D center in Santa Fe dubbed “Area 52.”

But unlike the Air Force’s infamous Area 51 in Nevada, Area 52 in Santa Fe is a privately run operation owned by Chevron Corp. And, in sharp contrast to the Air Force’s top secret notoriety, LANL executives are enthusiastic about discussing work being done there.

Area 52 is the capstone of a “strategic alliance” that LANL formed with Chevron in 2004 to allow that company to take technologies developed at the lab and turn them into commercial products with industrial applications, said LANL Technology Transfer Division leader David Pesiri.

“It’s a Chevron-funded venture to develop technologies and solutions that Chevron can deploy in its markets,” Pesiri said.

It’s different from Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, or CRADAS, commonly used at LANL and other U.S. Department of Energy facilities to allow companies to fund specific technology development projects. Rather, the alliance provides an ongoing framework for cooperatively building many marketable products out of lab discoveries, said LANL alliance manager John Russell.

The Chevron alliance has led to new sensors to monitor temperature, pressure and fluid levels in oil and gas wells; wireless communications technology to manage down-hole equipment; and acoustics technology that uses sound waves to measure water and oil flows in pipelines.

LANL has a separate strategic alliance with Proctor & Gamble Co. that began in 1994. That partnership has helped P&G to adapt “reliability engineering” software that LANL built for nuclear weapons. P&G has deployed it for commercial manufacturing operations at all its plants worldwide.

Steve Singer, LANL’s “industrial fellow,” or liaison to P&G, said the system has saved the company more than $1 billion in manufacturing costs since deployment began more than a decade ago.

LANL has earned about $50 million from its strategic alliances and other industry CRADAs since 2009. But Pesiri said the real benefit is further development of the lab’s early stage technologies for public use.

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