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Solutions Update

Rest easy—it's safe and secure

The desk is cleared, the computer is off, and the weekend lies ahead-hit the lights and you are out the door. Not fifteen minutes later you begin to question whether you locked the safe where you store your classified materials—sound familiar? Even the most diligent and security minded personnel have at some time experienced this absent-minded professor syndrome.

At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, an Information Security Resource Center team worked through an evolutionary process to develop Secure Safe, a security container monitoring system using radio frequency technology. Both visual and audible signals are triggered if the system detects that a security container has not been properly closed when personnel leave the room.

The proper storage of materials, documents and files within the U.S. Department of Energy and the national laboratory system was a growing security issue. Some labs were at risk of losing their ability to work on classified documents.

"We needed a solution to a very real problem. This wireless idea was born from necessity," said Project Manager Mike Schwartz, adding "Secure Safe assists in reducing the risk of leaving sensitive or classified information unattended." Rest easy—it's safe and secure.

The wireless communications system triggers an alarm if a worker leaves a room without properly closing and locking a safe or other security container. Using a combination of mechanical and optical sensors, Secure Safe tracks the position of a safe's door and locking mechanism. One sensor checks the door bolt positions, while another verifies that the combination dial has been spun and the locking dead bolt is retracted.

This information is relayed to an optical sensor mounted at the room's exit, monitoring traffic out of the area. When the sensor board's infrared beam detects a person exiting, it provides an audible and visible alarm if the safe is not closed and secured. A single board has the capacity to monitor the status of five containers and can be upgraded to monitor over 1,000 sensors.

Under further development is the ability to integrate this alerting device into a facility-wide monitoring system.

According to Schwartz, "The ability to interrogate a safe from a remote location such as a corporate headquarters, centralized alarm station or through a mobile device makes all the sense in the world—it creates a more efficient and immediate reporting system."

Secure Safe is currently in use at the Department of Defense, DOE headquarters, and DOE facilities in Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. But the technology behind Secure Safe has the potential for widespread application in private industries as well.

The safekeeping and monitoring of pharmaceutical and hospital cabinets, intellectual property in corporate filing systems, high-value personal items, personal weapons, business sensitive materials and computer hard drives are some of the obvious private-sector applications. Presently, more than a half-dozen companies are looking at licensing opportunities to take advantage of this simple yet sophisticated monitoring system.

Information regarding Secure Safe is located on the PNNL Available Technologies website at

Recognizing a need leads to a solution

Associated with security programs at PNNL, Larry Runyon and Wayne Gunter earned a patent on the concept for Secure Safe, which involved a reminder tool that was mounted by a door using a motion detector. An alert was used to remind staff at PNNL to check that security interests in the office were appropriately locked when leaving. This original technology evolved into Secure Safe and another patent is awaiting approval.

"The accomplishment associated with the invention of Secure Safe embraces the PNNL vision for translating discovery into a solution," said Runyon. "Wayne and I are not scientists, but we saw a serious problem developing and had an idea; it was an opportunity to make a difference."

Soil's a natural for storing CO2

In a field outside Charleston, S.C., PNNL's Jim Amonette and his colleagues from the U.S. Forest Service and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have planted 72 pots with Sudan grass. They don't care much about the grass, however—it's the soil beneath that captures their attention.

The pots contain controlled mixtures of soil and additives, there to promote the conversion of carbon in plant residues to a more stable form known as humus. If the tactic works, Amonette will have found a promising way to tackle two problems at the same time: carbon depletion from soils and the relentless build-up of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"Globally, soils contain four times as much carbon as the atmosphere, and half of the soil carbon is in the form of humus," said Amonette, a PNNL senior research scientist.

Until about 30 years ago, soil tillage released more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than burning of fossil fuels. Tillage is responsible for the loss of as much as a third of the carbon originally present in soils before they were used for agriculture.

"These carbon-depleted soils are a tremendous potential reservoir for carbon that can help slow the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide," Amonette said. "About a ton of carbon is added to an acre of a typical agricultural soil every year in the form of crop residues. Today, 99 percent of it comes out the top as carbon dioxide due to microbial processes. If we can increase the fraction that is retained in soil by even a small amount, it will make a huge difference."

Amonette's fieldwork is an extension of promising work in the lab, where his team has been able to promote a soil's natural ability to store carbon as humus (i.e., humification) by increasing the soil's alkalinity and the frequency of its wetting and drying cycles.

In the humification process, a common soil enzyme, tyrosinase, increases the reaction rate between oxygen and chemicals that are so-called humus precursors to form a class of compounds called quinones. The quinones further react with amino acids released by soil microbes to form humic polymers, complex and durable molecules that are crucial to a soil's ability to retain carbon.

"Because humic polymers are less easily degraded by microbes than the precursor molecules," Amonette said, "they survive to diffuse into small pores in soil aggregates where they are stabilized for decades, if not centuries."

The humification rate depends on many factors: enzyme stability, moisture, alkalinity, oxygen availability, microbial population and the physical roperties of different soils. Amonette's experiments are designed to weigh the importance of these many factors and to learn ways they might be manipulated to increase humification.

These experiments have shown that soil additives, such as fly ash, an alkaline porous byproduct of coal combustion, can promote humification. "Fly ash with a high unburned carbon content seems to be the best material, and this is fortunate as it has no other use and would otherwise be buried in a landfill," he notes.

By the end of the summer, Amonette hopes to have a handle on how his soil preparations play out in the less cooperative real world, where such things as humidity (considerably higher in the South) and the wetting and drying cycles that help promote humification are far less controllable and predictable.

The soil carbon cycle shows the sources and sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide, with an emphasis on the two-stage process of humification. Additives, such as fly ash, help catalyze the process.

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