November 1999

More nonbiological methane

Most of the Earth’s supply of methane—natural gas—comes as a byproduct of the digestion of organic compounds by microorganisms or decomposition. An ORNL researcher contends that more methane than previously thought may have been created by nonbiological means and has discovered a mechanism for the process to occur.

In an article published in the August 13 Science, the Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division’s Juske Horita and Michael E. Berndt of the University of Minnesota report research that could explain why methane is found on the ocean floor, where organic compounds are virtually absent. “At these locations we don’t see organic matter but still find methane. It’s been suspected that it is being created abiotically, but the conditions for it haven’t been known.

“We’ve discovered that the presence of nickel-iron alloys catalyzes a normally very slow reaction between carbon dioxide and hydrogen to create the methane, which is virtually indistinguishable from methane created through organic means,” Horita says. “These aren’t trivial amounts; there could be more of a contribution of methane by abiotic means in the earth’s upper crust and on ocean floors than we thought.”

Horita and Berndt report that abiotic methane forms rapidly in the presence of nickel-iron alloys and say that other compounds could also be catalysts.

Methane hydrates found in the sea are being explored as possible energy sources. Horita and Berndt’s paper also notes that the synthesis of methane under conditions similar to those found in the Earth’s upper crust could have implications for the possible nonbiological formation of petroleum and for the “evolution of prebiotic organic molecules in the early oceans.”

Turn the lights out when you Y2K

ORNL again tested its readiness for Y2K on the weekend of Oct. 16–17, when Lab staff participated in an “electric power load minimization test.” Employees essentially turned off everything nonessential—even refrigerators—for the weekend in an exercise to see if the Lab could meet a demand goal of 10 megawatts or less. Normal demand can be up to 25 megawatts if major user facilities are operating (none were).

Although no power outages are expected on New Year’s, ORNL may be called on to reduce its power consumption if the Tennessee Valley Authority, itself deemed Y2K ready, has to supply power to other faltering grids, says John Glowienka, who is spearheading ORNL’s Y2K program.

The test achieved a load of 13.2 MW, which Glowienka says makes the 10 MW goal during the holiday look achievable because many operations that did not shut down for the drill (experiments and such) will be powered down for the millennium change.

You’ll likely be reminded again, but be sure to turn off lights, heaters, computers and other appliances if you leave for the holidays.

The search for dark matter

Sam Ting shows off his souvenir copy of ORNL Review.
ORNL staff members had the opportunity to hear a Nobel laureate speak on one of the universe’s most baffling mysteries: Where is all the dark matter? Dr. Sam Ting, who won the 1976 Nobel Prize for physics, described his Alpha Magnetic Experiment, which is slated to be installed on the International Space Station.

Ting explained, in his talk titled “Search for Antimatter and Dark Matter in the Universe,” that theories that account for the order of the galaxies in the universe demand much more mass than seems to exist, hence “dark matter.” The Big Bang theory also requires an existence of an antimatter universe, which may or may not have gone away. “There are lots of theories, but few experiments,” said Ting, who aims to help fix that.

Ting, who has been the subject of articles in journals and magazines such as Discover, waved a copy of the latest issue of the Lab’s premier scientific publication, the ORNL Review, which features a Tony Mezzacappa simulation of a supernova core collapse.

The search for property that matters

Perhaps if ORNL’s Property Management staff were put on the trail of dark matter, they’d find it. They’ve been named ORO’s property management contractor of the year and received an outstanding rating in the recent critical outcomes review. Office manager Cheri Cross says technology has made the difference in their success with keeping up with our stuff.

“We are successful because we love change—especially when we can take advantage of innovative technology,” Cross says. “To my knowledge, we (ORNL and Energy Systems) are the first government site that utilizes the Web to manage property. We are virtually paperless.”

Cross, who is the National Property Management Association’s eastern manager of the year, says that Property Management’s convincing DOE that it wasn’t cost effective to track items valued at less than $1,000 or computers for more than five years has resulted in the the elimination of 23,000 items from its Web-based PRISM system and an annual savings estimated at half a million dollars.

Reported by Bill Cabage

A simpler time

Remember the commotion that a brief e-mail outage caused a few months ago?
Troyce Jones, veteran research mathematician and all-around Lab favorite, retired last month. During one of his forays into cleaning out his office, he turned up a memo, dated Jan. 11, 1980, that illustrates how much times have changed, especially when it comes to communication. It concerns the temporary acquisition of two newfangled devices.
“The usual difficulties in communication between X-10 and Y-12 have been increased by the need to conserve gasoline. In an attempt to make things better, we have just rented two facsimile machines for transmitting written material back and forth . . .
“The attached form should be filled out, indicating at upper right wether the item needs to be transmitted ‘immediately,’ ‘within three hours,’ or ‘overnight’ . . .
“Although these are ‘fast’ machines and they skip blank spaces, transmission time is about three minutes per full page. Hence, transmittal of more than a few pages should be avoided where possible.”