By The Texas A&M University System National Laboratories Office
Each year, the Texas A&M University College of Engineering’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Program hosts multiple Aggies Invents, 48-hour intensive design events focusing on real-world problem solving. Engineering topics vary each event, and one of this year’s was nuclear security. The event took place virtually this year, on Oct. 23-25, and was sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). A total of 54 students, divided into five teams, participated from several colleges and disciplines throughout Texas A&M. This event provided an invaluable opportunity for students to engage with national laboratories mentors and contribute to ongoing laboratory concerns.
Aggies Invent is a two-day intensive design experience in which students in multidisciplinary teams work together to design a solution to an identified need or problem while further developing students’ innovation and collaboration skills. Each event has a different theme, which is determined through sponsor and faculty collaboration. Participants have the opportunity to learn from mentors who serve as consultants and content experts throughout the program. The teams compete for cash awards and recognition for the best innovation.
Throughout the nuclear security event, students were put to the task of solving real-world problems defined by LANL. To address these needs, students formed teams and interacted with mentors. They planned and designed their project, created prototypes, performed necessary fabrication and created presentation materials. Finally, students conducted dry runs with their creations, crafted a technical presentation with a 90-second video and presented their project to the judges — all within 48 hours.
For the event, LANL identified 13 need statements, and teams chose to address four of them. Two teams tackled wearable radiation detectors, which involved designing a radiation-detecting textile that could be used in a lab coat or glove with consideration of efficacy, manufacturability and wearability. Another team addressed the need for fragment detection, which involved designing a self-healing fragmentation shield to protect a container against ammunition rounds. Teams also addressed the need for corrosion detection and a satellite-based nuclear detonation detector.
This year’s winning team was X-Ray Nuclear Explosion Tracker (XNET). The team included five undergraduate students: Elias Ramos-Ibarra, nuclear engineering junior; Ricardo Lizardi Prieto, nuclear engineering sophomore; William Garbarini, aerospace engineering sophomore;
Nicholas Pierson, mechanical engineering junior; and Jessica Williams, general engineering freshman. They designed a satellite-based nuclear detonation detector, which can be mounted on a satellite and detect nuclear explosions from space.
This need is important to LANL because in 1963 the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty that prohibited nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in space and underwater. That same year, the U.S. launched the first in a series of Vela satellites to monitor compliance with the treaty. Since then, other treaties have been signed such as the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which limits underground testing. These treaties are most useful if compliance with them can be verified.
The students were asked to design an instrument to detect a nuclear explosion from space. The instrument would be mounted on a satellite and be able to survive the high shock and vibration encountered during a rocket launch into orbit and tolerate extreme temperatures and natural radiation encountered in space.
Winning team XNET’s solution consisted of a collection of sensors that can detect a nuclear explosion underground, on Earth or in the atmosphere. They accomplished this level of functionality by using detectors that recognize Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and X-ray frequency signatures while still filtering all false-positive atmospheric interference. The aluminum alloys and aerogel construction provide a durable, long-lasting construction that integrates the multiple sensors that can be used in multiple orbits.
Ramos-Ibarra said, “Working with Los Alamos scientists was my favorite part of the event. Their input was constructive and inspiring. Also, I really enjoyed collaborating with my teammates. They all brought something new to the table and working with them was a blast. It was fascinating to know that although we all had different technical backgrounds, we came together to produce a project that we are all proud of.”
The judging panel included individuals from LANL, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Pantex and The Texas A&M University System National Laboratories Office (NLO). The teams and their projects were judged for technical performance and standards, project feasibility, project innovation and quality of presentation.
Judge Chuck Farrar, Ph.D., director of the Engineering Institute at LANL said, “I was somewhat amazed at what they could accomplish in just a weekend, particularly because a number of the students were very early in their academic career.”
“I was also very impressed with how much they did in such a short time. All of the teams did a great job,” said judge Amy Askin, Ph.D., associate program leader for radiological security at LLNL.
Pierson also addressed the short timeframe in his reflection on the event. “Aggies Invent Nuclear Security was a surreal experience; it was intense given the short, 48-hour time window, but the experience was beyond rewarding,” he said.
Texas A&M and NLO are dedicated to providing opportunities for students and faculty to engage with the national laboratories. Through Aggies Invent, the laboratories gain a valuable connection to students working in multidisciplinary groups toward a common goal that reflects the multifaceted, challenging nature of the work done at national laboratories. This event also exposes students to potential future careers and research opportunities at the labs by allowing them to network with laboratory representatives.
As Williams shared, “I learned that engineering is a truly multidisciplinary field. This was my first time working on a team with such a variety of specializations, and everyone bringing something different to the table was definitely a real-life experience.”