Friday, December 23, 2016

Top Los Alamos science stories of 2016

From discoveries on Mars to breakthroughs in cancer research, from national security science to materials science, 2016 has proven to be another productive year for Los Alamos National Laboratory achievements.

‘This year’s significant advancements in high-performance computing, materials science, cancer research as well as national security, space exploration and nuclear nonproliferation science underscore the Lab’s unique multidisciplinary scientific capabilities,’ said Alan Bishop.

NASA’s far-flung space robots keep finding signs of water

An illustration of the space probe dawn arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres. (NASA)

Robotic explorers have found signs of long-lost water on Mars and extensive ice still present on the dwarf planet Ceres — evidence that water truly is almost everywhere we look.

The results were announced last week at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union — the world's largest gathering of Earth and space scientists. There, NASA scientists discussed the results from several of the dozen space probes currently exploring the universe beyond our planet.

Scientists may have found evidence of life-supporting water on Mars

While scientists are working hard to reach Mars, others are trying to discover whether something beat us there already.

Researchers have long known that Mars is barren and uninhabited, but the question as to whether life ever exited in the planet's past is still up for debate.

Asteroid insurance: LANL researcher studies how to defend Earth from massive collisions

This rendering shows NASA’s DART spacecraft serving as a “kinetic impactor” in an effort to change the orbit of the “moonlet” that revolves around the bigger Dydimos asteroid. (ESA Photo)

Cathy Plesko, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, just wants us to be ready.
She’s a computational geophysicist whose computer models are intended to help figure out how to avoid the potential apocalypse of big comets or asteroids striking the Earth.

“It’s one of those things, like I keep a fire extinguisher in my kitchen,” Plesko says, “not because I expect to have a kitchen fire, but just in case, because sometimes kitchen fires happen.”
Right now, apparently, Earth has no extinguisher for asteroids.

Evaluating Reaction Of A Giant Asteroid Making A Splash Into The Sea

What could possibly occur when a huge asteroid strikes the sea?
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory wanted to evaluate what could possibly occur when a huge asteroid strikes the sea. They found the results to be extremely fascinating. The study was presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting.
The study spearheaded by Galen Gisler and team from ANL employed supercomputers to gauge the impact of a speeding space rock hitting the ocean.

DNA Markers Distinguish Between Harmless, Deadly Bacteria 

Scanning electron micrograph of a murine macrophage infected with Francisella tularensis strain LVS.

The virulent pathogen that causes the disease tularemia, or "rabbit fever," was weaponized during past world wars and is considered a potential bioweapon. Through a new study of the coccobacillus Francisella, Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are working to use DNA markers to discern related but relatively harmless species as they are identified and to provide a means to distinguish them from the harmful F. tularensis. 

"This large study is particularly notable for having used 31 publicly available genomes plus select genes from about 90 additional isolates," said corresponding author Cheryl Kuske of the Bioenergy & Biome Sciences group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The paper was published in the current issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology (AEM).

Leaky plumbing impedes Greenland Ice Sheet flow

On the Greenland Ice Sheet, the ice flow more than doubles in speed in many regions during summer, as surface melt drains to the bed and lubricates the motion.

Surface meltwater that drains to the bed of the Greenland Ice Sheet each summer causes changes in ice flow that cannot be fully explained by prevailing theories. Now a multinational, multidisciplinary team led by ice sheet modelers at Los Alamos National Laboratory is exploring how changes in extensive, sediment-choked subglacial "swamps" actually explain why the ice sheet's movement slows down in late summer and winter.

"The drainage system beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet controls how fast the ice flows towards the sea and ultimately contributes to sea-level change," said Matthew Hoffman, lead author on the project and an ice-sheet modeler at Los Alamos. "For more than a decade it's been known that the ice flow more than doubles in speed in many regions during summer, as surface melt drains to the bed and lubricates the motion. This acceleration sends ice to the sea faster. However, the motion also slows down in late summer, fall, and winter, which largely offsets the summer speedup. Exactly why it slows down as much as it does and for as long as it does has not been clear.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Scientists warn we're not prepared for surprise asteroid strike

Asteroid deflection computer model, LANL image.

So, how could we defend against these objects? At the talk, The Guardian reports Dr. Cathy Piesko of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said our options could include deploying “a kinetic impactor” — which she described as “basically a giant cannonball” — or perhaps a nuclear warhead.

But both would come with serious risks, and it would take years of preparation to figure out how to do it right. “We are very carefully doing our homework before finals week,” Plesko said. “We don’t want to be doing our calculations before something is coming. We need to have this work done.” (Full Story)

Doomsday preview: Supercomputer simulates asteroid impacts

Impact simulation, LANL image.

Our planet’s surface is 70 percent water by area, and an aquatic impact would create a sizable tidal wave that could do some serious damage if it hits a populated area. But apocalyptic visions of the devastation resulting from an asteroid strike may be slightly overblown, say scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The team used a supercomputer-assisted model to simulate the outcomes of various types of impacts, creating a series of visualizations depicting the aftermath. Along with the size of the rock and angle of impact, the biggest factor in determining the potential for destruction is whether the asteroid breaks up before hitting the surface, or what’s called an “airburst.” (Full Story)

Also from Smithsonian Magazine

Two ways to save the world from asteroid strike

Scientists in the United States have warned that measures need to be taken NOW to prepare for a possible asteroid strike on Earth. And to avoid a catastrophe similar to the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs 60 millions years ago, the scientists are looking at an asteroid-blasting spacecraft. Dr Cathy Plesko is a research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Listen to the podcast)

Scientists have a crazy plan to nuke deadly asteroids out of the sky

Asteroid heating and off-gassing illustration, from Gizmodo.

Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center spoke about the best approaches for preventing a sequel to the KT-extinction. It turns out there are really only two good options: kinetic impactors, which jostle Earth-bound comets and asteroids onto more benign orbits, and explosives, which blow them to smithereens.

Catharine Plesko, a researcher at Los Alamos who uses supercomputers to model asteroid deflection scenarios, says that with decades to centuries of lead time, the more pacifistic kinetic impactor approach is preferred for asteroid deflection. (Full Story)

First detection of boron on the surface of Mars

ChemCam target Catabola, JPL image.

“No prior mission to Mars has found boron,” said Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “If the boron that we found in calcium sulfate mineral veins on Mars is similar to what we see on Earth, it would indicate that the groundwater of ancient Mars that formed these veins would have been 0-60 degrees Celsius [32-140 degrees Fahrenheit] and neutral-to-alkaline pH.” The temperature, pH, and dissolved mineral content of the groundwater could make it habitable. (Full Story)

NASA's Curiosity Rover finds boron under ancient Martian lakebed

Los Alamos postdoc Patrick Gasda, LANL image.

With the first ever detection of the element boron in the ancient surface of Mars, researchers are ever more hopeful that the arid Red Planet’s ancient climate was once clement and habitable. Or so report NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

“If the boron that we found in calcium sulfate mineral veins on Mars is similar to what we see on Earth, it would indicate that the groundwater of ancient Mars would have been [32-140 degrees Fahrenheit] with neutral-to-alkaline pH,” said Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Full Story)

Also from Space dot com and YouTube

Forget jetpacks. Where are our hydrogen-powered cars?

X-ray tomography of an experimental fuel cell membrane, LANL image.

To make fuel cells competitive, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded, science-based approach is driving efforts to better understand the materials in them. As part of this initiative, Los Alamos National Laboratory is leading two efforts with industry partners, academics and other national laboratories to lower fuel-cell cost by developing less expensive materials while maintaining durability. The work is being carried out under two consortia within DOE’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. (Full Story)

Science on the Hill: Bringing the power of genetic research to an office near you

The DNA code in a genome is built from molecular units called bases, LANL image.     

Seeing a need that the unique expertise at Los Alamos National Laboratory could fill, a team in the Biosecurity and Public Health group … has developed a new computational and web-based tool called EDGE Bioinformatics.

Los Alamos was a key player, contributing its expertise in life sciences, particularly genetics and its world-class computing resources to the task of unraveling the human genetic code. (Full Story)

To subscribe to Los Alamos Press Highlights, please e-mail and include the words subscribe PressHighlights in the body of your email message; to unsubscribe, include unsubscribe PressHighlights.

Please visit us at

Friday, December 9, 2016

Northeast Christmas tree farmers get drought in their stockings

Drought killed 80 percent of the plantings
at this Massachusetts farm. CSM photo

A December 2015 study noted surprising deaths of pines in the Southwest, where trees are more drought adapted. The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change and led by Nathan G. McDowell, a climate researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said the results indicated forests experienced “a high likelihood” of “widespread mortality” by 2100 when extrapolated across all of North Hemisphere. Juniper trees were of particular concern, and the study said the tree “has alarming implications for conifers in general because juniper historically experienced far less mortality than other conifers during droughts.” (Full story)
Starting fluid for laser fusion

LLNL image.

Rick Olson from Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, and his colleagues have opted for a liquid layer because it should require less compression than ice. To test this concept, the team used a special foam that absorbs the liquid fuel into a spherically symmetric layer along the capsule wall. When exposed to NIF’s lasers at reduced power, the imploding capsule reached temperatures sufficient to trigger fusion, as evident from a yield of neutrons comparable to ice-based experiments. Further work will test whether this liquid approach can achieve self-sustaining reactions at higher laser power. (Full story)
AAAS and Los Alamos National Laboratory
announce 2016 Fellows

William Louis (left) and Scott Crooker, LANL photos.

Scott Crooker, of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Condensed Matter and Magnet Science group, and William Charles Louis III, of the Laboratory’s Physics Division, have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Election as an AAAS Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.

“The AAAS fellowship is an honor that recognizes Scott and Bill’s scientific achievements and leadership,” said Carol Burns, deputy principal associate director of the Laboratory’s Science, Technology and Engineering directorate. “Their work helps Los Alamos succeed in its national security mission and has an international impact." (Full story)

Quantum computing: Probable solutions
incredibly fast

Heart of the D-Wave quantum computer.
From D-Wave

Lockheed Martin bought the first-ever D-Wave System and has already upgraded it a few times.  Another was bought by Google and a third by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a long-time leader in the use of high-performance computers.

Scott Pakin, a computer scientist at Los Alamos who has over two decades of high-performance computing experience and is now evaluating D-Wave’s system. “Our current (classical) high-performance machines are subscribed 24x7x365 in helping with the kinds of problems we have, such as simulating nuclear explosions for our weapons research," he said. "Those need incredible computing power, and sometimes it’s better to get a good enough solution very fast than an excellent solution slowly." (Full story)

To subscribe to Los Alamos Press Highlights, e-mail and include the words subscribe PressHighlights in the body of your email message; to unsubscribe, include unsubscribe PressHighlights.

Please visit us at

Friday, December 2, 2016

EDGE bioinformatics brings genomics to everyone

Cheryl Gleaner (left) demonstrates EDGE bioinformatics to students, LANL photo.

A new bioinformatics platform called Empowering the Development of Genomics Expertise (EDGE) will help democratize the genomics revolution by allowing users with limited bioinformatics expertise to quickly analyze and interpret genomic sequence data. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their collaborators at the Naval Medical Research Center developed EDGE, which is described in a paper recently published in Nucleic Acids Research. (Full Story)

Also from PhysOrg this week:

Quantum friction—beyond the local equilibrium approximation

Non-equilibrium description of quantum friction, MBI graphic.

Systems out of thermodynamic equilibrium are very common in nature. In recent years they have attracted constantly growing attention because of their relevance for fundamental physics as well as for modern nanotechnology. In a collaborative effort, the Theoretical Optics and Photonics group at the Max-Born-Institut and Humboldt-Universit├Ąt zu Berlin together with colleagues from the Universit├Ąt Potsdam, Yale University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory now report on detailed new physical insights of non-equilibrium atom-surface quantum friction. (Full Story)

Smoking a pack a day causes 150 lung cell mutations a year

In their comprehensive analysis, a research team from England’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico found that those who smoke have on average 150 additional mutations in every cell of their lungs for each year of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day.

The study reporting the findings, “Mutational signatures associated with tobacco smoking in human cancer,” is published in the journal Science. (Full Story)

Entropy Engine appears perfectly unpredictable

Quantum-Secured Communication team leader Ray Newell, LANL photo.

The Entropy Engine, one of Los Alamos National Laboratories R&D 100 award-winning technologies this year, was designed to address a dangerous authentication crisis in the world today.

What computers need to know to ascertain who is talking to whom has come a long way from what was once quaintly termed a “handshake,” and yet there are still large holes and uncertainties in the distributed computing, as has been most conspicuous in the hacking related charges and suspicions surrounding the recent Presidential election. (Full Story)

Also from the Daily Post:

LANL employees contribute to families in need

Retiree Johnnie Martinez places a frozen turkey in a collection box, LANL photo.

Los Alamos National Laboratory held its annual Bring a (frozen) Turkey to Work Day on Tuesday, something it has been doing for several years now.

The Lab partners with the Food Depot in Santa Fe, which in turn partners with 145 other agencies throughout Northern New Mexico to ensure that people in the area don’t go without food, especially this week, Thanksgiving week.

All told, Laboratory employees and Laboratory contractor Cray Computer donated 475 frozen turkeys, which are packaged with nonperishable food items also donated by Laboratory employees during its recently-completed holiday food drive. (Full Story)

Author thanks LA for solving photo mystery

President John F. Kennedy shakes hands with Manhattan Project scientist Stanislaw Ulam at the CMR building.

In 1962, the lab was focusing its efforts on nuclear propulsion to power the rockets for America’s fledgling space program, before chemical propulsion later became the mainstay of the space program.

It was decided that Kennedy and his entourage, which included Vice President Lyndon Johnson, military officials, several congressmen and supporting staff, would visit Wing 9 [at CMR] because it was still outside the security fence at the time. (Full Story)

To subscribe to Los Alamos Press Highlights, please e-mail and include the words subscribe PressHighlights in the body of your email message; to unsubscribe, include unsubscribe PressHighlights.

Please visit us at

Friday, November 18, 2016

Science on the Hill: Fires set to clear African land are stoking climate change

Each year in the dry season, flames sweep across a large swath of the African countryside, engulfing every kind of grass and woody plant in their way. From October through March in the northern hemisphere and June through November in the southern hemisphere, people torch the land to clear it, remove dead and unwanted vegetation, and drive away grazing animals.   

Los Alamos National Laboratory, as part of a team of scientists on the project, focuses on ensuring high-quality measurements and studying the data to answer critical questions about biomass aerosols. (Full Story)

Using Wikipedia to forecast the flu

Sara Del Valle, LANL photo.

Forecasting the impact of not just the flu, but other infectious—and preventable—diseases such as HIV and measles could allow public health workers to focus on mitigation strategies and potentially save millions of lives around the world.   

Los Alamos researchers mathematics, computer science, statistics and information about how disease develops and spreads to forecast the flu season and even next week’s sickness trends. (Full Story)

Five Los Alamos innovations win R&D 100 Awards

Section of the PuLMo device, LANL photo.

Five Los Alamos National Laboratory technologies won R&D 100 Awards last week at R&D Magazine’s annual ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“These awards are representative of the multidisciplinary character of the work we do at Los Alamos, and result from partnerships with other national laboratories, private industry, and universities,” LANL Director Charlie McMillan said. “I applaud all of the R&D 100 award winners for their success and for showcasing the innovative science and technology that Los Alamos is known for.” (Full Story)

Also from the Daily Post this week:

Los Alamos honored with 2016 HPCwire Award

Gary Grider, left, accepts the HPCwire Readers’ Choice award. HPCwire photo.           

Los Alamos National Laboratory has been recognized with an HPCwire Readers’ and Editors’ Choice Award for the Lab’s collaboration with Seagate on next-generation data storage technologies. The award was presented at the 2016 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis (SC16), in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Full Story)

Exascale computing project to establish co-design centers

Tim Germann, LANL photo.

The Department of Energy has selected four co-design centers as part of a 4 year, $48 million funding award. The first year is funded at $12 million, and is to be allocated evenly among the four award recipients.

Co-design proposals and their principal investigators include the Co-design center for Particle Applications (CoPA) and its Principal Investigator Tim Germann at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This co-design center will serve as a centralized clearinghouse for particle-based ECP applications, communicating their requirements and evaluating potential uses and benefits of ECP hardware and software technologies using proxy applications. (Full Story)

Teams receive Laboratory Distinguished Performance Awards

Creedon praised the achievements of the award winners. LANL photo.              

Principal Deputy Administrator Madelyn Creedon of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Director Charlie McMillan presented the 2015 Distinguished Performance Award at an awards ceremony on November 2 to five teams of LANL employees.

“The achievements of these teams demonstrate the scientific excellence and operational effectiveness found at the national nuclear security laboratories,” said Creedon. “These employees should be very proud of their efforts. Their work at Los Alamos is essential to NNSA achieving its vital national security missions. They and other lab employees are our greatest asset.” (Full Story)

To subscribe to Los Alamos Press Highlights, please e-mail and include the words subscribe PressHighlights in the body of your email message; to unsubscribe, include unsubscribe PressHighlights.

Please visit us at