Friday, May 29, 2020

Infectious disease models aren't crystal balls but are useful tools in Florida's fight against COVID-19

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference in Miami Gardens, from USA Today.

Sara Del Valle, a senior scientist and mathematical epidemiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said people can use infectious disease forecasts in a similar way as they use weather forecasts “to determine whether or not they’re going to bring an umbrella to work.”

“If your state seems to be trending up, then I think that that should be good information for the public to know that they should start taking more precautions,” she said. “If you're trending down, it doesn't mean that you should quit and party with everybody." (Full Story)

COVID-19, the Texas A&M system responds

Thom Mason interviewed remotely by John Sharp, Texas A&M Chancellor. Image from the Bryan Eagle.

On the latest episode of “COVID-19: The Texas A&M System Responds” I interview Dr. Thom Mason, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, about the lab’s work in the fight against COVID-19.

You might be wondering why the guardians of our country’s nuclear arsenal have a role in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. I think the answers will surprise you.

The lab, which is managed by a group including the Texas A&M System, is doing some truly fascinating work…including making artificial human organs for vaccine testing. (Full Story)

The new and improved Tomahawk missile now runs on corn

DoD photo.

One of the nation’s most prestigious national labs has developed a new fuel substitute for the same jet fuel that powers cruise missiles. Los Alamos National Labs has come up with a replacement fuel for JP-10 that uses corn bran and other feedstocks instead of petroleum products. The result is a fuel that can be sourced directly from America’s most plentiful crop, bypassing foreign sources.

LANL believes that JP-10’s high energy density might lead more high-performance jet engines to use the fuel. This would result in planes with longer ranges or that need to carry less fuel to get from Point A to Point B. If so, this new fuel could be yet another military innovation that carries over to the civilian world. (Full Story)

New software predicts power loss during natural disasters

Los Alamos National Laboratory has released new software designed to help predict power loss during natural disasters. The software takes into account the three major grid connections in the United States as well as substations that help deliver power. LANL says the program will help the administrator’s become more efficient in restoring power to affected areas and in making sure power is delivered to other parts of the country that are connected to it. (Full Story)

Meteor that blasted millions of trees in Siberia only 'grazed' Earth, new research says

Blast in 1908 flattened a Siberian forest, image from Live Science.

A new explanation for a massive blast over a remote Siberian forest in 1908 is even stranger than the mysterious incident itself.

Known as the Tunguska event, the blast flattened more than 80 million trees in seconds, over an area spanning nearly 800 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) — but left no crater.

However, some lingering questions about this scenario remain, said Mark Boslough, a research professor at the University of New Mexico and physicist with Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

Boslough, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science in an email that if an object "skimmed through the atmosphere" and didn't blow up, the resulting shock wave would be significantly weaker than an explosion's blast wave. (Full Story)

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Why NASA thinks nuclear reactors could supply power for human colonies in space

NASA is developing a nuclear reactor that could power a human settlement on the moon. NASA illustration.

Engineers wanted advanced performance from these systems right away, which led to complicated and expensive designs, says David Poston, a nuclear engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He and Patrick McClure, who specializes in reactor safety at Los Alamos, have worked at the lab for the past 25 years and recall the days when nuclear fission had fallen out of favor.

In the early 2010s, they got their chance: researchers at Los Alamos and later the NASA Glenn Research Center and the US Department of Energy began work on a joint project called Kilopower, now renamed the Nuclear Fission Power Project. The goal is to develop a new nuclear fission power system for space that would be capable of producing 10 kW of electrical energy. (Full Story)

Social media rules. That's bad in a pandemic

Covid-19 illustration, CDC image.

Popular social media posts are filled with inaccuracies about science. They could damage public health during this coronavirus pandemic, the authors of two separate studies say.

This research collaboration between scholars at George Washington University, University of Miami, Michigan State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory looked at comments from more than 100 million Facebook users in a variety of online communities that discussed vaccines during the 2019 measles outbreak.  (Full Story)

Why artificial brains need sleep

Image from Inside Science.

Conventional techniques used to rapidly train standard artificial neural networks do not work on spiking neural networks. "We are still learning how to train spiking neural networks to perform useful tasks," said study lead author Yijing Watkins, a computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Watkins and her colleagues experimented with programming neuromorphic processors to learn to reconstruct images and video based on sparse data, a bit like how the human brain learns from its environment during childhood development. "However, all of our attempts to learn eventually became unstable," said study senior author Garrett Kenyon, also a computer scientist at Los Alamos. (Full Story)

Visualizing science: How color determines what we see

Scientists use data visualization to quantify, interpret, evaluate, and communicate information, LANL image.

Color strongly influences the way we perceive information, especially when that information is dense, multidimensional, and nuanced—as is often the case in scientific data sets. Choosing colors to visually represent data can thus be hugely important in interpreting and presenting scientific results accurately and effectively.

“Language is inherently biased, but through visualization, we can let the data speak for [themselves],” said Phillip Wolfram, an Earth system modeler and computational fluid dynamicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. At Los Alamos, data visualizations are as ubiquitous as the sagebrush that embroiders the nearby desert.  (Full Story)

Scientists give quantum dot solar cells a detox

The new quantum dot electrodes and the corresponding spread of different elements in them, LANL image. 

Among their many uses, quantum dots have shown promise as photovoltaic materials in solar cells. Now, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have developed a new type of quantum dot solar cell that isn’t made with the toxic elements found in most, while maintaining efficiency.

The main problem with quantum dot solar cells is that they’re made with toxic elements like lead and cadmium. So, for the new study the LANL team tried a different recipe, making their dots out of copper, indium and selenium that was then layered with zinc. (Full Story)

Also from Solar+Power and AZO Quantum

New technique separates industrial noise from natural seismic signals

Map of detected industrial noise, LANL image.

For the first time, seismologists can characterize signals as a result of some industrial human activity on a continent-wide scale using cloud computing. In two recently published papers in Seismological Research Letters, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory demonstrate how previously characterized “noise” can now be viewed as a specific signal in a large geographical area thanks to an innovative approach to seismic data analyses.

“In the past, human-caused seismic signals as a result of industrial activities were viewed as ‘noise’ that polluted a dataset, resulting in otherwise useful data being dismissed,” said Omar Marcillo, a seismologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the study. “For the first time, we were able to identify this noise from some large machines as a distinct signal and pull it from the dataset, allowing us to separate natural signals from anthropogenic ones.” (Full Story)

Also from the Los Alamos Reporter

Bradbury Science Museum launches online archives with Manhattan Project science and history

The Bradbury Science Museum launches its online archives collection, LANL photo.

The Bradbury Science Museum premiered its online artifacts collection with images of groundbreaking science and history of the Manhattan Project, which developed the world’s first atomic bombs at Los Alamos Laboratory that helped to end World War II.

“People can now virtually experience a part of the museum never seen before as well as some of our gallery exhibits,” said Wendy Strohmeyer, collections specialist at the Bradbury Science Museum, which interprets the Laboratory’s history during the Atomic Age of the Manhattan Project.  (Full Story)

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Friday, May 15, 2020

Predicting mosquito populations to keep diseases in check

Photo from SciAm.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, we’re studying the dynamics of mosquito populations to understand how they grow, how they change with the seasons and, in particular, how they spread infectious diseases to humans and to other animals. The goal is to create a computer-based model that will accurately simulate these populations based on data about precipitation, temperature, water levels and other environmental factors in a given area, so people will know ahead of time about an increased risk of disease transmission.

For this project, we’re specifically looking at West Nile virus, which birds transmit to humans via mosquitoes. We analyzed 15 years of data from several different locations in the United States and Canada, making it one of the largest modeling studies of mosquito populations over time ever conducted. (Full Story)

El Niño-linked decreases in soil moisture could trigger massive tropical-plant die offs

El Niño weather pattern, NOAA graphic.

Associated with warmer than average ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific, El Niños can in turn influence global weather patterns and tropical precipitation, and these changes can lead to massive plant die-offs if other extreme factors are also at play.

"We know a lot about El Niño in terms of its impact on weather and surface water resources," said Kurt Solander, a research hydrologist in the Computational Earth Science group at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the paper. "This new study drills down to reveal how El Niño can affect the moisture content of soil, which controls the growth of plants, the food we eat, and how much water from land gets fed back into the atmosphere through evaporation." (Full Story)

How do we know the nukes still work?

The centrifuge facility at Los Alamos, LANL photo.

I visited Los Alamos in June 2019 to learn more about this program. Experiments there attempt to recreate the conditions that a nuclear device might face as it approaches its target. A steel tube about the height and width of a semi-truck but much longer sits in the scrubby fields behind security-guarded outposts at the lab, which is located about 60 miles northeast of Albuquerque. Warheads with dummy nuclear pits are placed at one end of the pipe, and more than 100 pounds of the conventional explosive C4 is set off at the other. The tube guides the shockwave toward the warhead, where scientists image the interaction using high-speed cameras. Beside the shock tube, a low concrete building contains a blue-and-white centrifuge that can spin test warheads to 200 revolutions per minute to ensure they can survive the 12-g force of reentry into the atmosphere. (Full Story)

Organic spacers improve LED performance

Light-emitting diode arranged in a "perovskite" crystal structure. BNL image.

A team led by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Los Alamos National Laboratory in collaboration with Brookhaven and Argonne National Laboratories has demonstrated that the choice of organic spacer significantly impacts LED performance. By using organic spacers with atoms arranged in a ring instead of a linear chain, the scientists increased device efficiency by two orders of magnitude (to around 12 percent) and brightness by 70 times, with a luminance approaching that of typical green organic LEDs.

"The large organic spacers slice the 3-D perovskite crystal lattice into a 2-D layered structure consisting of graphene-like atomic sheets each less than a billionth-of-a-meter thick," explained Wanyi Nie, a scientist at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) at Los Alamos. (Full Story)

LANL starts small pilot program for COVID-19 testing of employees

Microscopic image of Covid-19, from NIH.

A small pilot program for COVID-19 testing of Los Alamos National Laboratory employees is slated to begin on-site Tuesday.

Testing will be by appointment only and employees selected for initial testing will be among those working on-site in mission critical functions, medical professionals and emergency response personnel.

“Our goal,” said Laboratory Director Thom Mason, “is to protect the health and safety of our workforce, to prevent the spread of this disease, and to maintain our ability to deliver on mission critical work.” (Full Story)

Also from Defense Daily

Fast science is still slow, and that’s not bad

Image from Bloomberg.

Scientists still don’t know exactly how infectious children are and how re-opening schools and daycares will affect spread in communities. A vaccine is probably at least 18 months away. And while the virus is clearly mutating, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory raised eyebrows worldwide with a recent paper—published online prior to peer review—that suggested one variant might be more contagious.

Science’s questioning dance of hypothesis, experiment, analysis, conclusions and more hypothesis usually plays out further from the political stage. But now, with politicians—and their worried and sometimes angry constituents—demanding quick solutions, the gap is growing between how fast science really works and how fast we wish it would work. (Full Story)

Quantum technologies go the distance

QKD equipment, ORNL photo.

For the second year in a row, a team from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories led a demonstration hosted by EPB, a community-based utility and telecommunications company serving Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Using an isolated portion of EPB’s fiber-optic network, the team experimented with quantum-based technologies that could improve the cybersecurity, longevity and efficiency of the nation’s power grid. Among other successes, the researchers drastically increased the range that these resources can cover in collaboration with their new industry partner, Qubitekk. (Full Story)

2020 Supercomputing Challenge award winners announced

Participants come from public, private, parochial, and home-based schools in all areas of New Mexico. The important requirement for participating is a real desire to learn about science and computing. Supercomputing Challenge teams tackle a range of interesting problems to solve.

The main sponsors are Triad, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the New Mexico  Consortium. The Awards Ceremony specially thanked LANL Director Thom Mason and New Mexico Consortium CEO Steven Buelow as instrumental to this year’s successful challenge. (Full Story)

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Friday, May 8, 2020

Scientists say a now-dominant strain of the coronavirus appears to be more contagious than original

Covid-19 illustration, CDC image.

Scientists have identified a new strain of the coronavirus that has become dominant worldwide and appears to be more contagious than the versions that spread in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Los Alamos team, assisted by scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England, identified 14 mutations. Those mutations occurred among the nearly 30,000 base pairs of RNA that other scientists say make up the coronavirus’s genome. The report authors focused on a mutation called D614G, which is responsible for the change in the virus’ spikes. (Full Story)

Where the latest COVID-19 models think we're headed

The Los Alamos model is projecting between 81K and 173K deaths in the U.S. by May 30, with an average of 107K. It assumes that there will continue to be interventions such as stay-at-home orders, but it does not specifically assume what those interventions will be. Instead, it considers various possible interventions to arrive at its forecast, which typically results in wider confidence intervals than a model with stricter assumptions. (Full Story)

Model Citizens

Sara Del Valle, LANL photo.

When Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Sara Del Valle gives public presentations on her work, she often shows a clip from the film Contagion, in which a new bat-borne virus swiftly spreads from China to the rest of the world, swiftly and gruesomely killing many and crippling society while scientists race to curtail the spread and find a cure.

"I always tell people, 'Hollywood almost got it right,'" says Del Valle, a deputy group leader and applied mathematician in LANL's Information Systems and Modeling Group and part of the team modeling the COVID-19 pandemic. Where the film errs, she says, is in its portrayal of Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) as the sole epidemiologist investigating the outbreak. (Full Story)

Battling COVID-19 with expertise, technology And materials

Microscopic image of Covid-19, NIH image.

Areas covered include disease detection and diagnostics, epidemic modeling, disease prediction and forecasting, decision support, data collection and integration, and medical measures.

“Over the last several weeks, the Laboratory has taken extraordinary steps to preserve the ability to execute our mission while assisting our surrounding communities, the state, and our nation during this demanding national emergency,” Los Alamos Director Thom Mason said. “Many are looking to the Laboratory for resources including our expertise, technology, and materials to help combat the COVID-19 virus.” (Full Story)

What can epigenetics tell us about sex and gender?

We're used to thinking of DNA as a rigid blueprint. Karissa Sanbonmatsu researches how our environment affects the way DNA expresses itself—especially when it comes to sex and gender.

Karissa Sanbonmatsu is a principal investigator at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the New Mexico Consortium, where she studies the mechanism of non-coding RNA systems, including ribosomes, riboswitches and long non-coding RNAs. She published some of the first structural studies of epigenetic long non-coding RNAs and is currently studying the mechanism of epigenetic effects involving chromatin architecture. (Full Story)

Laser-driven implosions similar at dissimilar scales

Before CGI, action film makers relied on the principle of scale invariance: a miniature set shot in slow motion looks about the same as a full-sized set shot at regular speed. Now, Joshua Sauppe at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, and colleagues have shown that the same principle applies to the hydrodynamics induced in fuel targets by laser-driven inertial confinement. In experiments using two separate laser systems—the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, and the smaller OMEGA laser facility at the University of Rochester, New York—the team reproduced nearly identical hydrodynamic behavior in the fuel, even though the setups operate at very different spatial and temporal scales. (Full Story)

Studying Earth’s double electrical heartbeat

Global lightning chimneys over the Americas, Africa, and the Maritime Continent. NASA image.

Lightning pumps charge into the atmosphere, as do galactic cosmic rays. Electrified clouds that don’t produce lightning shoulder a share of the burden equal to that of lightning. Dust, pollutants, and other particles in the lower troposphere also play a role in the global electrical circuit, as does the changing of the seasons.

“You’re looking at the total integrated effects of all the electrified weather across the globe,” said Michael Peterson, a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who has studied the circuit with satellite lightning detectors. “People have described it as the electrical heartbeat of the planet.” (Full Story)

Are salt deposits a solution for nuclear waste disposal?

Installation of the infrared heater being tested at a one of the research sites.

In the United States, scientists are studying several solutions for disposing of these wastes. Phil Stauffer and researchers at Los Alamos National Labs have been working with the US Department of Energy and other national laboratories on one long-term, safe, disposal solution—salt.

"Deep salt formations that already exist in the United States are one candidate for long-term disposal," says Stauffer. "This 'high-level' nuclear waste can create a lot of heat, in addition to the radioactivity that must be contained. We need to develop a clear path to dispose of this waste." (Full Story)

Volcanic lightning helps aviators avoid hazardous ash

Volcanic lightning at Redoubt during its March 2009 eruption, by Bretwood Higman.

Bogoslof, a remote Alaskan volcano, pokes only 330-500 feet (100-150 meters) above the Bering Sea. After slumbering for more than 20 years, Bogoslof’s recent eruption began in December of 2016. 

Globally detectable volcanic lightning is not ubiquitous. According to Sonja Behnke, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who studies volcanic lightning, “It seems to be important to have external water to have the ice-charging mechanism.” She explains that Bogoslof has an external water source because its vent is submerged underwater. Similarly, Redoubt has a glacier at its summit, providing an external water source for ice-charging. (Full Story)

Texas A&M, Los Alamos partner to make large data sets easier to handle

The Texas A&M University System National Laboratories Office (NLO) and Los Alamos National Laboratory have formed a collaborative research effort to make extremely large data sets indexable and more easily searchable.

“We are excited to be partnering with our colleagues at Texas A&M on this important and potentially game changing research. This collaboration leverages extreme strengths in data management research from both our organizations,” said Gary Grider, division leader for High Performance Computing at Los Alamos. (Full Story)

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