Friday, August 7, 2020



The deadly history of ammonium nitrate, the explosive linked to the Beirut blast

An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port's grain silos, from NatGeo.

Some internet rumors speculate that because the ammonium nitrate was left to sit in a warehouse for several years, it would have degraded, becoming more volatile and increasingly dangerous over time. But David Chavez, an explosives scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, doubts that scenario. “Ammonium nitrate does not degrade with time under normal storage conditions,” he says.

A more likely explanation is that the ammonium nitrate in Beirut was not alone inside the warehouse. Given the reported amount, Oxley hypothesizes that a vehicle must have been used to carry the compound inside, and that could have contaminated it with oil or gasoline.  (Full Story)

Also in the Washington Post


Neural networks need naps, just like you

Illustration from PopMech.

Neural networks would like a day off. Between powering facial recognition systems, filtering email spam, and even aiding in cancer research, the specialized branch of machine learning deserves a bit of rest and relaxation.

And according to new research from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, neural nets might actually need that shuteye—or at least a machine's version of it.

Yijing Watkins, a computer scientist at Los Alamos, said her team had been studying "spiking neural networks," or systems that learn as much as our own living brains do, when they became inspired to try something a bit unusual. (Full Story)


Finding new ways to the keep the land alive

The Rio Grande Valley, photo by Katrina Bennett.

El agua es vida. Water is life. This concept is universal, but it is particularly applicable in the dry, arid climate of northern New Mexico.

When people think about water in this area, acequias might immediately come to mind. They are an important part of New Mexico history and have been providing water to crops dating back to Native peoples in the 1400s. Year in and year out, the complex irrigation systems literally brought life to people in northern New Mexico.

A team of researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory is using computers to model how the land is impacted by changes in temperature and precipitation, taking into account elevation, soil data, geology, vegetation and other factors.  (Full Story)


At Los Alamos, making science fiction a reality

DNA illustration, NIH image.

In Michael Crichton’s 1990 science fiction novel Jurassic Park, scientists working for billionaire entrepreneur John Hammond successfully cloned dinosaur DNA ... at Los Alamos National Laboratory, scientists often mimic Hammond’s mindset when developing radical new ways to use science to help humanity.

Around the world, a discipline known as synthetic biology continues to take baby steps in making the science fiction of tomorrow a reality today. For instance, scientists have assembled DNA components in living cells to produce new types of molecules with characteristics researchers can exploit to solve useful problems. (Full Story)


2020 Mars Rover Perseverance carrying LANL SuperCam launches successfully

Roger Wiens watches the launch from his home in Los Alamos.  From the LA Reporter.

Roger and Gwen Wiens joined millions of people around the world Thursday who watched the 2020 Mars Rover Perseverance launch from Cape Canaveral on its journey to Mars.

“The first thing I did this morning was to run outside at 4:45 a.m. and get a good long look at Mars, our destination! It was shining pale red, directly overhead. As I watched, a bright meteor left a trail right across the Milky Way,” Roger Wiens, the principal investigator for the SuperChem instrument aboard Perseverance said. “Then I went inside and started a Webex with the SuperCam team—many people who worked on the instrument here in Los Alamos, but also a number of scientists around the country and in Europe.” (Full Story)


How the “Department of Exploration” supports Mars 2020 and more

An Atlas V rocket lifts off July 30, NASA photo.

DOE is playing another critical part in the Perseverance mission through the rover’s SuperCam, which was supplied by Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dubbed the “Swiss Army Knife” of instruments and mounted atop the rover’s mast, the SuperCam will be able to determine the minerology, chemistry, and even molecular and atomic composition of rocks and soils, by firing a laser to study targets more than six meters away.

In concert with NASA’s mission objectives, the SuperCam will search for signs of ancient microbial life, as well as identify elements in the Martian dust that may be harmful to future human explorers. It will even be able to dust off rock targets, allowing the rover’s instruments to have a clearer view. (Full Story)


Take a guided ‘tour’ of SuperCam on new Mars rover

Mars Technica is a new podcast.

NASA’s new Perseverance rover, which just started its seven-month journey to Mars, carries on board what is likely the most versatile instrument ever created to understand the planet’s past habitability: SuperCam—and a new podcast will tell listeners all about it.

“SuperCam sits on the rover’s mast and has a laser that can zap rocks up to 25 feet away,” said Roger Wiens, who leads the SuperCam team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the instrument was developed. “It analyzes the chemistry and mineralogy of the rocks on Mars, which can tell us a lot about whether the planet could have once harbored life.” (Full Story)



Simulating quantum 'time travel' disproves butterfly effect in quantum realm

Graphic charting how "Alice" transmits quantum information to "Bob." LANL image.

Using a quantum computer to simulate time travel, researchers have demonstrated that, in the quantum realm, there is no "butterfly effect." In the research, information - qubits, or quantum bits - "time travel" into the simulated past.

"On a quantum computer, there is no problem simulating opposite-in-time evolution, or simulating running a process backwards into the past," said Nikolai Sinitsyn, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and coauthor of the paper with Bin Yan, a post doc in the Center for Nonlinear Studies, also at Los Alamos. "So we can actually see what happens with a complex quantum world if we travel back in time, add small damage, and return. We found that our world survives, which means there's no butterfly effect in quantum mechanics." (Full Story)



Keeping supercomputers cool

Jim Lujan, LANL photo.

Talk about infrastructure. The National Nuclear Security Administration has completed what might be called five of the world’s largest refrigerators. They’ll eventually keep the chill on some mighty supercomputers to be constructed nearby. It’s all taking place at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. With more of what’s going on, the program manager for advanced simulation and computing, Jim Lujan, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Tom Temin: Now this picture that I’m looking at, five gigantic air conditioners, tell us what you’ve done so far here. There was a ribbon cutting for it.

Jim Lujan: Right. Lisa Gordon-Hagerty came out and was able to do the ribbon cutting ceremony on our new cooling project. What you can see from outside of the building are five large evaporative cooling towers. This is the first step in taking water temperature and starting to cool it down. (Full Story)

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Friday, July 31, 2020



We need to forecast epidemics like we forecast the weather

Forecast map, LANL image.

Disease-modeling communities around the world have been working tirelessly since January to predict how and where Covid-19 will spread, with some real successes. A host of models have illustrated how, with the right resources, we can create relatively accurate disease forecasts that give communities and public health officials an idea of what to expect — and time to prepare.

Researchers around the world are already working on the foundations of such a tool to forecast epidemics. My colleagues and I at Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, have been participating in the CDC’s Epidemic Prediction Initiative since 2013, which initially focused on forecasting the flu but has since expanded to other diseases. And we are one of about 24 models or groups forecasting Covid-19 deaths for the U.S. as part of the CDC’s Covid-19 modeling efforts. (Full Story)


Quantum Mechanics proves 'Back to the Future' is B.S.

Scene from "Back to the Future," from PopMech.

In trippy new research, scientists say they’ve confirmed what they call the Avengers: Endgame model of time travel.

They did this by running a quantum time travel simulation that runs backward and forward, letting them “damage” the past and see what resulted. 

In a statement, sponsoring Los Alamos National Laboratory likens the movie Back to the Future, where Marty McFly must carefully not disrupt the timeline of his own inception, to the idea of the “butterfly effect.” The idea is simple: Because of the complex way time moves and how causality “ripples out” in unexpected or just unfathomable ways, stepping on a butterfly in the past could change the entire world you try to return to. (Full Story)


Quantum time travel doesn't follow Back to the Future rules

Illustration from New Atlas

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory used a quantum computer to develop a simulation of time travel. And their results were somewhat surprising.

“On a quantum computer, there is no problem simulating opposite-in-time evolution, or simulating running a process backwards into the past,” says Nikolai Sinitsyn, co-author of the study. “So we can actually see what happens with a complex quantum world if we travel back in time, add small damage, and return. We found that our world survives, which means there’s no butterfly effect in quantum mechanics.” (Full Story)

Also from Science Daily


Mining medical isotopes from nuclear waste

This vial contains traces of actinium within a mixture of thorium and uranium, from C&EN.

No actinium-based drugs are yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, but if any get a green light, the medical community will need multiple ways to produce 225Ac and multiple institutions producing it, says Kevin John, project manager for the DOE’s Tri-Lab Effort to produce actinium. Currently, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory are the country’s sole providers of its limited supply of 225Ac. In 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency convened a meeting to discuss a global strategy to meet the rising demand for 225Ac. The resulting report described production via multiple sources, including proton cyclotrons, linear accelerators, and nuclear waste. (Full Story)



How is the Mars Perseverance rover getting to the Red Planet?

The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (center) on the Perseverance rover, NASA photo.

The Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy with Idaho National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have supported the Mars 2020 mission since 2014 when they were tasked to construct the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator and its plutonium fuel to power the Perseverance rover. DOE’s partnership with NASA to provide radioisotope power systems goes back to the 1960s as part of the Apollo missions.

The SuperCam instrument on the rover was designed, built and tested at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in partnership with the French space agency, Centre national d'études spatiales. SuperCam uses laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy to study mineral composition, hardness and texture of Martian rocks and soils and will search for organic compounds related to Mars' geologic past. (Full Story)



Microphone aboard NASA's rover aims to pick up sounds from Mars

Roger Wiens, LANL photo.

The Perseverance rover launches Thursday, the last of three missions leaving in July while the planets' orbits are favorable. It is carrying technology that doesn't often go to space: a microphone.

NPR's Brendan Byrne interviews Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist Roger Wiens about the first-ever sound recording on Mars, made possible by a tiny microphone mounted alongside the SuperCam instrument, located at the top of the Perseverance Rover's mast.  SuperCam is a laser-based spectrometer that will allow scientists to look at Mar's geology for signs of life, and the microphone will help those same scientists understand the fundamental properties of that geology. (Full Story)



We're going to record sound on Mars. It'll be eerie.

The microphone on the rover's SuperCam is circled in red, NASA photo.

Space aboard the rover is limited and valuable, so NASA required the microphone (or most anything on Perseverance) to have a scientific purpose, explained Roger Wiens, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who leads the SuperCam. (SuperCam is the laser-shooting instrument atop the rover where the microphone is attached.) Wiens team, however, discovered a scientific purpose for a microphone: When the laser shoots a softer rock it leaves a little pit, which makes a different popping sound than a laser zap on harder rocks. This sound is a way to identify rocks, giving NASA better information about the most promising places to visit in the expansive Martian desert. (Full Story)



Launch of Mars 2020 scheduled for 30 July

Perseverance Rover, NASA illustration. 

The SuperCam spectrometer is also located on the mast of the rover, directly beside the two eyes of the stereo camera. This instrument allows contactless analysis of the chemical composition and mineralogy of the rover’s surroundings. “Like its predecessor ‘ChemCam’ on the Mars rover Curiosity, the spectrometer uses a pulsed laser to investigate the geochemistry of rocks and soil.

The SuperCam is scientifically managed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and IRAP/CNES in Toulouse, France. (Full Story)



Ning Xu selected Fellow of American Chemical Society

Ning Xu, LANL photo.

Ning Xu of the Actinide Analytical Chemistry group at Los Alamos has been selected as a member of the 2020 class of Fellows of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Xu is being recognized for her sustained contributions to actinide analytical chemistry in support of national nuclear defense, technical nuclear forensics, nuclear material safeguards and deep space exploration.

“Being selected as an ACS Fellow is an incredibly prestigious honor and I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Ning,” said Jeanne Robinson, acting associate laboratory director for Chemical, Life, and Earth Sciences. (Full Story)

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Friday, July 24, 2020



Why R0 is problematic for predicting COVID-19 spread

R0 Log Scale, from The Scientist.

To estimate the biological parameters needed to determine R, such as the period over which an infected person can transmit a pathogen and the probability that she will do so, “we try to borrow information from similar viruses,” explains Sara Del Valle, a mathematical and computational epidemiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. To model Brazil’s Zika virus epidemic in 2015, for example, her team used data on the transmissibility of dengue. During the 2011 H1N1 flu pandemic, they turned to data from influenza outbreaks in the 1960s.

For COVID-19, Del Valle, like many other researchers, plugged in parameters documented for other coronaviruses, including MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, to estimate R0. However, the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 turned out to be markedly different from that of these viruses. (Full Story)


Coronavirus: Are mutations making it more infectious?

University College Hospital in London, where the changing virus is being studied, from BBC.

One of the studies' leads, Prof Bette Korber, at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, said there was not a consensus, but the idea the mutation increased patients' viral load was "getting less controversial as more data accrues".

When it comes to looking at the population as a whole, it's difficult to observe the virus becoming more (or less) infectious. Its course has been drastically altered by interventions, including lockdowns. But Prof Korber says the fact the variant now appears to be dominant everywhere, including in China, indicates it may have become better at spreading between people than the original version. Whenever the two versions were in circulation at the same time, the new variant took over. (Full Story)


State enlists LANL to analyze school opening options

From NMDOH.

Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are helping New Mexico analyze four scenarios for reopening schools – one of which would involve keeping teenagers home so younger students could spread out in high schools.

In briefings to lawmakers and reporters, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Friday that the calculations are incredibly complex and require massive computing power at the laboratory to determine how each option would affect the spread of COVID-19. (Full Story)


LANL volunteer takes to the skies to help fight COVID-19

Pilot Josh Payne is a scientist at theLaboratory. From the Reporter.

On a typical day, Payne, a scientist in the Laboratory’s Applied Computer Science Group, is writing high performance computer codes or taking his plane out for fun in the skies over Santa Fe. But on this day, Payne is on one of several self-directed missions to make critical supply drops in Arizona and New Mexico to communities hit hard by COVID-19 and lacking resources to fight its spread.

When COVID-19 broke out, Payne began looking for ways to help. Using his Lab-honed computer skills, he initially 3D printed masks and face shields at home, before logistical issues derailed his work. (Full Story)


New Mars rover, with LANL components, to search for life

NASA’s Perseverance rover, NASA illustration.

NASA is now poised to take the next step to answer this question with the upcoming launch of the Perseverance rover.

The mission of this new rover is several-fold. Its primary and unique purpose is to collect samples that a future spacecraft can bring back to Earth. Every time a rover goes to Mars, it stays there, with no way to fly back home. No rock or soil samples have ever been brought back to Earth. This mission proposes to change that by caching rock and soil samples on the Martian surface for a future mission to bring home. (Full Story)


LANL, NNSA honor 75th anniversary of the Trinity Test

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty (center) with Thom Mason (left) and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan at the Laboratory's V-site. LANL photo.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the testing of the nuclear bomb, known as the Trinity test, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) officials along with representatives from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) gathered at V-Site located in the LANL campus Thursday afternoon to honor the milestone that led to the end of World War II.

V-Site was a fitting venue. Before the “Gadget” or the prototype of the nuclear bomb “Little Boy,” exploded in the Alamogordo desert July 16, 1945, it was pre-assembled and had some early testing done at V-Site.

LANL Director Thom Mason and U.S. Under Secretary of Energy for NNSA Lisa Gordon-Hagerty spoke during the event, which was also attended by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujàn, although he did not make a presentation. (Full Story)


NNSA Administrator views Manhattan Project era artifacts

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty (left) views artifacts from the Manhattan Project with Director Thom Mason (center) and Ben Ray Lujan (right).  LANL photo.

Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty spoke Thursday at V-Site on the Los Alamos National Laboratory during a commemoration event for the 75th anniversary of the Trinity Test.

The V-Site buildings and the nearby Gun Site are the last significant structures still standing at Los Alamos associated with the development and assembly of the world’s first nuclear devices. Located away from the main laboratory for safety and security reasons, the V-Site consisted of a cluster of wooden buildings built in January 1944 as a high explosives handling and assembly facility.  (Full Story)

Also from the Reporter this week:

Ribbon-cutting dedicates new building to former LANL director Donald Kerr

NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty cuts the ribbon on the new Donald M. Kerr Office Building, LANL photo.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony last Thursday at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a new modular office building was officially named the Donald M. Kerr Office Building, in honor of the former Laboratory Director.

Department of Energy National Nuclear SecurityAdministrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty and NNSA Los Alamos Site Office Manager Michael Weis were on hand cut the ribbon to dedicate the building, which is the first top-secret facility to be built at the Laboratory in 15 years. (Full Story)



New atomtronic device to probe weird boundary between quantum and everyday worlds

A schematic of an atomtronic SQUID, LANL image.

A new device that relies on flowing clouds of ultracold atoms promises potential tests of the intersection between the weirdness of the quantum world and the familiarity of the macroscopic world we experience every day. The atomtronic Superconducting QUantum Interference Device (SQUID) is also potentially useful for ultrasensitive rotation measurements and as a component in quantum computers.

“In a conventional SQUID, the quantum interference in electron currents can be used to make one of the most sensitive magnetic field detectors,” said Changhyun Ryu, a physicist with the Material Physics and Applications Quantum group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  (Full Story)


Wildfire smoke’s bad – but scientists find a silver lining

USFS photo.

The Los Alamos study measured the chemistry of four large plumes produced by the Woodbury Fire that ravaged the Superstitions, closed the Apache Trail and now threatens road and reservoir damaging erosion off denuded slopes. The scientists measured the plumes both close to the source and as the smoke drifted over New Mexico. They found the center of the plume remained loaded with brown carbon, but oxidation and other chemical changes reduced the brown carbon over time at the edge of the plume.

“Mixing and oxidation lightened the brown carbon, reducing its ability to absorb light and cause warming. This implies that the warming effects of wildfire brown carbon is likely smaller than published model assessments,” the researchers concluded. (Full Story)


Newly-completed weather enclosure at DARHT facility

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty cuts the ribbon on the new enclosure for DARHT, LANL photo.

New weather enclosure improves quality of work life, enhances safety, and increases productivity at the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility.

NNSA Administrator Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty attended the Weather Enclosure’s ribbon cutting ceremony on July 16, during a visit to LANL. Speaking to the accomplishment, Administrator Gordon-Hagerty noted, “This facility will not only protect millions of dollars of equipment from the elements but will also boost experimental capabilities and provide a safe, year-round working environment for employees to accomplish stockpile stewardship which is at the heart of the LANL’s mission.” (Full Story)


DOE concludes Exascale Cooling Project at Los Alamos National Lab

Gordon-Hagerty cuts the ribbon in front of the new cooling towers, LANL photo.

The Exascale Class Computer Cooling Equipment Project reached the Critical Decision-4 milestone in May and was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday at Los Alamos National Laboratory, DOE said the same day. The project concluded 10 months earlier than scheduled with $20 million saved.

“High-performance computing continues to be key to the future of our science-based stockpile stewardship program, and completing this project ahead of schedule allows the enterprise to keep moving forward towards its next milestones,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration. (Full Story)

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