Friday, February 14, 2020

The U.S. power grid desperately needs upgrades to handle climate change

Map of the U.S. electrical grid, EIA image.

The number of possible new installations and renovations across a network of power lines is often so high that a computer cannot simulate every combination of upgrades to calculate how many customers would benefit. “If you have on the table 100 or 150 or more different things you could do to your system and you look at all the possible combinations … very quickly the number of combinations exceeds the number of atoms in the universe,” says computer scientist Russell Bent of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

To tackle this problem, Bent and colleagues developed a computer program that doesn’t simulate every possible combination. Instead, it strategically samples upgrades from the pool of options that a utility has funding for and evaluates how the utility’s network would fare in different disasters — such as earthquakes and hurricanes — with each upgrade option. (Full story)

Disease modelers gaze into their computers to see the future of Covid-19, and it isn’t good

The virus that causes Covid-19. Courtesy Photo.

Like weather forecasters, researchers who use mathematical equations to project how bad a disease outbreak might become are used to uncertainties and incomplete data, and Covid-19, the disease caused by the new-to-humans coronavirus that began circulating in Wuhan, China, late last year, has those everywhere you look. That can make the mathematical models of outbreaks, with their wide range of forecasts, seem like guesswork gussied up with differential equations; the eightfold difference in projected Covid-19 cases in Wuhan, calculated by a team from the U.S. and Canada, isn’t unusual for the early weeks of an outbreak of a never-before-seen illness.

But infectious-disease models have been approximating reality better and better in recent years, thanks to a better understanding of everything from how germs behave to how much time people spend on buses.

“Our overarching goal is to minimize the spread and burden of infectious disease,” said Sara Del Valle, an applied mathematician and disease modeler at Los Alamos National Laboratory. By calculating the effects of countermeasures such as social isolation, travel bans, vaccination, and using face masks, modelers can “understand what’s going on and inform policymakers,” she said. For instance, although many face masks are too porous to keep viral particles out (or in), their message of possible contagion here! “keeps people away from you” and reduces disease spread, Del Valle said. “I’m a fan of face masks.”

The clearest sign of the progress in modeling comes from flu forecasts in the U.S. Every year, about two dozen labs try to model the flu season, and have been coming ever closer to accurately forecasting its timing, peak, and short-term intensity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines which model did the best; for 2018-2019, it was one from Los Alamos. (Full story)

New Mexico scientists' new development could lead to the growth of a human heart

Scientists at Los Alamos National Lab developed the first full 3D structure of a heart RNA molecule. Karissa Sanbonmatsu is a structural biologist with LANL.

"Over 90 percent of the human genome codes for these molecules so they're extremely important,"Sanbonmatsu said. RNA is like a cousin to DNA, and is often called the "dark matter of the genome," because scientists do not really know what they do or even look like.

"You can learn a lot about what kinds of drugs bind that molecule and often you can solve the entire mechanism just by getting a detailed 3D image," she said. (Full story)

All about the laser (and microphone) atop Mars 2020, NASA's next rover

SuperCam mast unit undergoes testing at
Los Alamos, LANL photo.

SuperCam is led by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the instrument's Body Unit was developed. That part of the instrument includes several spectrometers, control electronics and software.

The Mast Unit was developed and built by several laboratories of the CNRS (French research center) and French universities under the contracting authority of CNES (French space agency). Calibration targets on the rover deck are provided by Spain's University of Valladolid. (Full story)

Satellite 'license plates' and re-igniting rocket fuel could head off space junk crashes

Space Junk illustration, from Live Science.

Approximately 5,000 satellites carry payloads into orbit around our planet, but only around 2,000 are active and communicating with Earth, said David Palmer, a Los Alamos space and remote-sensing scientist.

"Currently, when something is launched — and a launch can release 100 or more satellites — the operators and the space surveillance people have to track every piece of space hardware that is released by the rocket and determine individually which piece is which."

Palmer is the principal investigator for a project developing a type of electronic license plate for satellites. This will allow orbiters to broadcast their owners and positions for as long as they're in space, even after the satellite ceases to function. (Full story)