(AP) The silver trough, as long as a football field, was developed to harness the sun and help wean the nation off imported oil. For years, it stood abandoned in the desert, an obsolete relic of the 1970s.
Now, in another time and another growing national crisis, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have dusted off their sophisticated solar panels and put them back to work.This time, the panels are helping the environment. Sandia scientists believe they've found an efficient way to use solar power to break down toxic waste, help clean up polluted dumps and cleanse contaminated water tables.
"We're just helping nature, that's all. There's nothing artificial about this," said Virgil Dugan, Sandia's director of Advanced Energy Technology.
Solar research is just one area where scientists at Sandia, one of the nation's three nuclear weapons laboratories, are finding ways to help with growing environmental problems.
As the need for ever improved nuclear weapons lessens, the laboratories are directing their technological might to greater peacetime use.
With expertise developed for weapons programs and Army machinery, "smart" robots are hurriedly being assembled to clean out highly radioactive and toxic chemical waste at Department of Energy weapons plants across the country.
"It's the same technology (that goes into weapons programs), even though it seems there are two different applications," said Pat Eicker, manager of Robotic Science and Technology at Sandia.
In the case of the abandoned solar collector, scientists realized they might be able to run contaminated water, such as polluted ground water, through the sunlight-focusing machine and use its power to help break down organic toxic waste.
The contaminated water is mixed with a catalyst - titanium dioxide - and pumped through a clear tube in the center of the long, parabolic solar trough.
The tube glows like Darth Vader's sword as sunlight activates the titanium dioxide, which frees an electron. The electron grabs onto organic material, in this case, the contaminates, and breaks them down into water, carbon dioxide and a mild, harmless acid.
"You can drink the water that comes out at the end," said Mike Prairie, a senior technical staff member on the solar project.