Friday, July 14, 2017

Keeping an eye on the sky at Los Alamos

Artist’s concept of an active supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA/JPL

Every night in a remote clearing called Fenton Hill high in the Jemez Mountains of central New Mexico, a bank of robotically controlled telescopes tilt their lenses to the sky for another round of observation through digital imaging. Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Thinking Telescopes project is watching for celestial transients including high-power cosmic flashes called, and like all science, it can be messy work.

To keep the project clicking along, Los Alamos scientists routinely install equipment upgrades, maintain the site, and refine the sophisticated machine-learning computer programs that process those images and extract useful data from them. Each week the system amasses 100,000 digital images of the heavens, some of which are compromised by clouds, wind gusts, focus problems, and so on. (Full story)

Safer solid propellant for cubesats
Los Alamos National Laboratory has a radical new solid propellant for cubesats. Unlike a traditional composite propellant, which mechanically mixes a fuel and an oxidizer into a high explosive, the new propellant ignites an energetic fuel — really a low explosive. Then hydrogen and nitrogen gases from the burning fuel flow through the solid oxidizer component of the system, which gasifies, mixes with the fuel gases and unleashes significant thrust.

Both components of this binary system, the energetic fuel and the oxidizer, are immune to detonation, a huge advantage over other rocket fuels. Even the shock from the detonation of a material like C-4 in direct contact with the motor would not cause the propellant itself to detonate. Also, because the system uses solid materials, it cannot leak, has no pressurized gases and has no moving parts like a liquid system. (Full story)

Los Alamos museum hosts multimedia Manhattan Project exhibit

The Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos is slated to host a new multimedia exhibit on the Manhattan Project.

The interactive exhibit, Manhattan on the Mesa: Manhattan Project Properties at Los Alamos, tells the story of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists working on the world's first atomic bomb.

New Mexico Highlands University students developed the multimedia exhibit that features 3-D models, videos, virtual reality, and graphic panels. (Full story)

Algae production research gets boost at Los Alamos
An aerial view of a series of raceways, where Sapphire
validates the performance of its cultivation strains
by testing them at increasing spatial scales.
Credit: Sapphire Energy INC

The U.S. Department of Energy announced the selection of three projects to receive up to $8 million, aimed at reducing the costs of producing algal biofuels and bioproducts. One of the projects involves Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Shawn Starkenburg working with Alina Corcoran of Sapphire Energy at its Las Cruces, New Mexico field site, evaluating rationally designed pond cultures containing multiple species of algae, as well as beneficial bacteria, for consistent biomass composition and high productivity. The project was awarded through a DOE Funding Opportunity Announcement titled "Productivity Enhanced Algae and Tool-Kits (PEAK)."

"Our goal is to double the yield of outdoor algal production systems," Starkenburg said. "By applying strategies and management practices from agriculture, aquaculture, microbial ecology, as well as using high-throughput selection tools to generate microbial assemblages, we believe this is achievable," he said. (Full story)

Los Alamos National Laboratory to host hazmat challenge to test first responder skills
Image: Homeland Preparedness News.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory hosted 10 hazardous materials response teams from Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Nebraska for the 21st annual Hazmat Challenge, pitting each team against one another in a series of graded, timed exercises.

The event, held at Los Alamos’ Technical Area 49 in New Mexico, features a series of challenges that involves participants responding to simulated hazardous materials emergencies in the areas of rail and highway transportation, aircraft, biological laboratories, industrial piping, confined spaces, and a skills-based obstacle course finale. (Full story)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Designing a Safer Explosive

This Fourth of July, as you and your family settle on a sandy beach or grassy lawn to watch a fireworks display, you’re probably not thinking about the science behind the explosives you’re witnessing. In fact, you probably are not even thinking of them as explosives. But that’s exactly what they are—-and there’s a lot of science that goes into creating that dazzling display of fire and colors.

Fireworks often comprise mixtures of oxidizers and fuels that are ready to participate in combustion chemical reactions. When given enough energy to begin the reaction process, the oxidizers and fuels react to generate heat, smoke and reaction products such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor and nitrogen. The heat generated can be used to excite “coloring agents,” or metal ions, that then emit the colored light we are accustomed to seeing in fireworks. The metal ions commonly used in pyrotechnics are sodium (yellow-orange), calcium (red-orange), barium (green), strontium (red) and copper (blue). (Full story)

How Hollywood and the Army are shaping the future of fireworks

In pursuit of a better bang, two unlikely industries are working to develop greener, cleaner-burning pyrotechnics. Hollywood wants less smoke — and the military doesn't want to contaminate its training sites.

But the new formulations are pricy, and America’s commercial fireworks industry — which made $1.1 billion in revenue last year — is still a long way from changing their decades-old recipes. When the industry’s ready, or when environmental regulations become more stringent, fireworks manufacturers will at least know where to start, says Jesse Sabatini, a scientist with the US Army Research Laboratory who has worked extensively on pyrotechnics. “You’ve got formulations now that are out there, that the companies can take.” (Full story)

‘Halos’ left by water on Mars discovered

The Curiosity rover on Mars took this "selfie" at the foot of the planet's Mount Sharp, which is within the 96-mile-diameter Gale Crater. (Courtesy of NASA)

Water running through the subsurface of Mars lasted longer than previous estimates, according to observations made using the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s “ChemCam” on the Red Planet.

The ChemCam – for chemistry and camera – was developed at Los Alamos in cooperation with the French space agency and is located on NASA’s Curiosity rover. Its laser shoots rocks and analyzes the vaporized materials to discover what elements lie within.

Last year, the rover’s equipment found boron within rock veins in the planet’s huge Gale Crater, evidence of a history of habitable groundwater on Mars. (Full story)

Post-It note art installation supports LGBTQ+ employees

National lab promotes workplace inclusion through an interactive activity supporting LGBTQ+ employees

At Los Alamos National Laboratory—one of the nation’s premier Department of Energy national security laboratories tucked in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) employees and their supporters created the Lab’s first Post-It note window art installation on June 6.

In a visible display promoting diversity, hundreds of people jotted words of support on Post-Its. Six windows of the Lab’s centrally located Otowi building third-floor breezeway were transformed into the six vibrant stripes of the iconic gay pride rainbow flag. (Full story)

Friday, June 30, 2017

Simplifying Big Data supercomputing

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, home to more than 100 supercomputers since the dawn of the computing era, elegance and simplicity of programming are highly valued but not always achieved. In the case of a new product, dubbed “Charliecloud,” a crisp 800-line code helps supercomputer users operate in the high-performance world of Big Data without burdening computer center staff with the peculiarities of their particular software needs.

“Charliecloud lets users easily run crazy new things on our supercomputers,” said lead developer Reid Priedhorsky of the High-Performance Computing Division at Los Alamos. (Full story)

Medical Imaging Researcher, Optical Equipment Industry Leader Selected for High Honors by SPIE

A medical imaging research scientist from Los Alamos National Lab and the president of precision motion systems manufacturer Physik Instrumente USA have been selected for top awards by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. Ken Hanson of LANL and Brian Lula of PI have been invited to receive the SPIE 2017 Directors’ and President’s awards, respectively, during SPIE Optics + Photonics in August.

The two have been invited along with other honorees to accept their awards at a banquet in San Diego, California, on Aug. 9 (Full story)

James M. Boncella, Los Alamos Actinide Chemist, named fellow in American Chemical Society

James M. Boncella, deputy group leader in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Inorganic, Isotope and Actinide Chemistry group

James M. Boncella, deputy group leader in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Inorganic, Isotope and Actinide Chemistry group, has been selected as a 2017 Fellow in the American Chemical Society (ACS). The ACS Fellows Program recognizes members who have both made exceptional scientific contributions and who have provided excellent volunteer service to the ACS community.

Boncella was selected as Fellow for his seminal discoveries in actinide chemistry and for his long and distinguished history of service to the ACS, including serving as Chair of the Division of Inorganic Chemistry. 

His research in actinide organometallic chemistry led to the discovery of the [bis(imido)U(VI)]2+  ion, which is the nitrogen analogue of the uranyl ion (UO2) 2+. (Full story)

Seaborg's americium dispute put to bed 60 years later

After pioneering American radiochemist Glenn Seaborg voiced his suspicions that the elements after and including uranium constitute a distinct post-actinium series that he called the actinides, he had another hunch. In 1954 he suggested that americium – the next-heaviest element after plutonium and discovered by Seaborg’s team at the University of California at Berkeley in 1944 – uses its 5f orbitals to form partly covalent bonds with chlorine.

Whether Seaborg was right has been hotly debated by actinide chemists ever since. Now a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico claims to have clear evidence that the americium–chlorine interaction does indeed have some covalent character, owing to the mixing of chlorine’s 3p orbitals with both the 5f and 6d orbitals of americium. (Full story)

Atomic City: Secret no longer

Photo: Kit Bernardi, USA Today

During World War II, scientists at the isolated, clandestine laboratory complex atop the volcanic Pajarito Plateau in the Jemez Mountains designed and built the world’s first nuclear weapons as part of the historic Manhattan Project. (The city of Los Alamos itself was built after World War II, to support the people who worked at the lab.)

Because we were in Santa Fe on a family vacation, the Rio Grande separating that artsy town from science-oriented Los Alamos like the fissure between right and left brains, we drove my aspiring physicist 45 minutes northwest of Santa Fe to the “town that never was” so that he could explore the New Mexico segment of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, added to the list of national parks in 2015. (The other two sections are in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Richland, Wash.) (Full story)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Innovative rocket science gives boost to near-space missions

CubSat rocket motor test firing, LANL image.

Over the past decade and a half, satellites the size of a toaster have opened up new possibilities for using space. Called CubeSats, these diminutive spacecraft offer several appealing virtues for scientific and national security missions. They have one major handicap — but a fix is on the way.

For all their advantages, CubeSats are hamstrung by one shortcoming: they lack their own rocket motor. To solve the problem, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has a long history of developing propellants as part of the nuclear weapons program, have developed a unique segregated fuel oxidizer rocket fuel system. (Full story)

Laser-targeting A.I. yields more Mars science

ChemCam aboard the Curiosity Rover, NASA image.

A.I. software on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has helped it zap dozens of laser targets on the Red Planet this past year, becoming a frequent science tool when the ground team was out of contact with the spacecraft.

The vast majority of those involved selecting targets to zap with ChemCam's laser, which vaporizes small amounts of rock or soil and studies the gas that burns off. 

The U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico leads the U.S. and French team that jointly developed and operates ChemCam. (Full story)

UCAR collaboration to improve weather forecasts worldwide

MPAS enables forecasters to combine a global
view of the atmosphere with a higher-resolution
view of a particular region. UCAR image.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research today announced a new collaboration with The Weather Company, an IBM business, to improve global weather forecasting.

With the new agreement, The Weather Company will develop a global forecast model based on the Model for Prediction Across Scales (MPAS), an innovative software platform developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

MPAS offers a unique way of simulating the global atmosphere while providing users with more flexibility when focusing on specific regions of interest. (Full story)

U.S. textile makers look for a revival

Spools of thread awaiting shipment. From Unify.

New technology is also coming to textile finishing. APJeT developed its technology at North Carolina State University College of Textiles. The firm’s atmospheric pressure plasma jet technology, based on know-how from Los Alamos National Laboratory, uses a blend of gases to apply water-repellent, fire-retardant, and soil- and stain-resistant fabric finishes.

APJeT claims that its process completely eliminates the large amounts of water necessary to finish most textiles. It also says the process uses only 10% of the chemicals needed in traditional fabric finishing. (Full story)