Friday, April 9, 2021

COVID mutants multiply as scientists race to decode variations 

Covid-19 illustration from CDC.


When Bette Korber, a biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, spotted the first significant mutation in the Covid-19 virus last spring, some scientists were skeptical. They didn’t believe it would make the virus more contagious and said its rapid rise might just be coincidence.


“By watching it carefully, we can stay ahead of the virus and that is what everyone is scrambling to do right now,” said Korber, who is working to create new mathematical tools for spotting medically significant variants.


The flood of new genome data is so great that the Los Alamos lab had to upgrade its servers to deal with the incoming data. Meanwhile, Korber is on four Zoom calls a week with experts worldwide to devise criteria for deciding when mutations are concerning enough to merit detailed laboratory follow-up on how they may impact vaccines. (Full Story)


Mason updates community leaders on LANL initiatives


Thom Mason, LANL photo.


At the quarterly Community Conversation breakfast held remotely Wednesday, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Director Thom Mason updated more than 140 attendees on the Laboratory’s budget, infrastructure, recent scientific discoveries, and initiatives in education, economic development and support to community nonprofits.


Mason began by touting recent research in using the LANL proton accelerator to produce specialized isotopes to fight cancer by zapping diseased cells. That’s not LANL’s only recent contribution to medical science. New software can simulate the brain and how it reacts to trauma in order to help doctors treat brain trauma, Mason said. (Full Story)


What NASA's Mars Perseverance Rover mission has achieved in its first 50 days


NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, NASA image.


Since its February 18 landing, the car-sized rover has captured public attention and made global headlines as it explores the Martian surface.The mission is only just getting started, but Perseverance has already got a number of achievements under its belt.


Perseverance has been investigating rocks, and scientists have already determined that several of them are chemically similar to volcanic rocks here on Earth.


The rover has used its on-board laser to zap nearby rocks, and scientists can use this tool to work out what they're made of. One such rock, named Yeehgo, had signs that water is locked up inside its minerals, Roger Wiens, a geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told the journal Nature. (Full Story)


See where NASA just zapped this odd Martian rock with a laser


A curious, holey rock on Mars, NASA image.


From distances of over 20 feet away, a laser strike concentrates the power of one million light bulbs onto rocks and soil, producing flickers of light. These flickers are excited atoms, and the SuperCam analyzes this light to glean if a rocky target might have preserved past signs of Martian life — A holey, peculiar rock certainly struck the Perseverance science team as a place of interest. What type of rock is it? Why is it so holey?


"We thought we better check it out," Roger Wiens, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who leads the SuperCam team, told Mashable. "We’re trying to investigate the different types of rocks we see."  (Full Story)


New research shows Mars did not dry up all at once


ChemCam on Curiosity, NASA image.


While attention has been focused on the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars last month, its predecessor Curiosity continues to explore the base of Mount Sharp on the red planet and is still making discoveries. Research published today in the journal Geology shows that Mars had drier and wetter eras before drying up completely about 3 billion years ago.


“A primary goal of the Curiosity mission was to study the transition between the habitable environment of the past, to the dry and cold climate that Mars has now. These rock layers recorded that change in great detail,” said Roger Wiens, a coauthor on the paper and scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he is on the ChemCam team. ChemCam is the rock-vaporizing laser that sits on the mast of the Curiosity rover and analyzes the chemical composition of Martian rocks. (Full Story)


Why an intense fire season may be shaping up in 2021


LANL Firetec model. LANL image.


During the fire seasons of today, there are boosted odds for unnaturally, unusually big wildfires — particularly when it's already dry (like 2021). "This year has the potential for a significant intersection between dry fuels and highly accumulated fuels," said Rod Linn, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and an expert in wildfire modeling.


Further confounding matters, the rainy season is growing shorter in the Golden State, which means more opportunity for fires to spread over the dry land, particularly in the fall. "It's not just the severity [of fire conditions], it's the length of time in which the land is fire-prone," said Los Alamos' Linn. (Full Story) 


Colorado River basin due for more frequent, intense hydroclimate events


Colorado River basin, USGS map.


In the vast Colorado River basin, climate change is driving extreme, interconnected events among earth-system elements such as weather and water. These events are becoming both more frequent and more intense and are best studied together, rather than in isolation, according to new research.


"We found that concurrent extreme hydroclimate events, such as high temperatures and unseasonable rain that quickly melt mountain snowpack to cause downstream floods, are projected to increase and intensify within several critical regions of the Colorado River basin," said Katrina Bennett, a hydrologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the paper in the journal Water. "Concurrent extreme events of more than one kind, rather than isolated events of a single type, will be the ones that actually harm people, society, and the economy." (Full Story)


Moving toward a clean-energy future by advancing fuel cell technology


The U.S. transportation industry is the nation’s largest generator of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly one-third of climate-warming emissions. To move towards a clean-energy future, developing zero-emissions technologies for heavy-duty vehicles is critical. A new partnership comprising Los Alamos National Laboratory, Advent Technology Holdings Inc., Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will work over the next few years to bring to market high-temperature proton exchange membrane (HT-PEM) fuel cells that convert hydrogen and other renewable fuels into electricity.


“As the heavy-duty transportation industry seeks greener alternatives to combustion engines, HT-PEM fuel cells promise a clean, efficient alternative,” said Rod Borup, Los Alamos program manager for Fuel Cells and Vehicle Technology. (Full Story)


Core Concept: Muography offers a new way to see inside a multitude of objects


Muon radiography detector prototype, LANL photo.


After the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001, the US government investigated whether muography could be used to search for smuggled nuclear material. Physicist Chris Morris of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM, and his team succeeded. Instead of counting muons blocked by an object, the physicists tracked those that were deflected by the dense concentration of charge in atomic nuclei. This change in trajectory can be spotted in a detector—actually, two detectors—to compare the paths of muons before and after they pass through the material of interest.


“We built a scanner that was big enough so that we put a little ramp up and drive a Jeep into it and examine the contents of the Jeep and pretty much showed it worked,” Morris says. Revealing the technology in 2003, the team claimed its scanner could find “a block of uranium concealed inside a truck full of sheep” (Full Story)


Translation software enables efficient DNA data storage

In support of a major collaborative project to store massive amounts of data in DNA molecules, a Los Alamos National Laboratory–led team has developed a key enabling technology that translates digital binary files into the four-letter genetic alphabet needed for molecular storage.


“Our software, the Adaptive DNA Storage Codec (ADS Codex), translates data files from what a computer understands into what biology understands,” said Latchesar Ionkov, a computer scientist at Los Alamos and principal investigator on the project. “It’s like translating from English to Chinese, only harder.” (Full Story)


Also from the LA Reporter

Optical biosensor device aids in biomarker identification


Waveguide platform offers at least 10 times greater sensitivity than conventional systems. LANL photo.


Work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in conjunction with its research partners, provides valuable new insights into the diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB) using blood tests. A paper in the journal PLOS ONE today demonstrates the role that host-pathogen interactions play in detecting key biomarkers in blood, facilitating the diagnosis of disseminated or sub-clinical TB disease.


“We described two tailored assay strategies for the direct detection of a particular biomarker by taking advantage of its association with fat-carrying lipoproteins in our body,” said Harshini Mukundan, lead scientist on the project. “Our findings highlight the role that host-pathogen interactions play during TB disease and the need to account for these interactions in the design of diagnostic assays. (Full Story)



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Friday, April 2, 2021

Why the sun isn't causing today's climate change


NASA image.


The sun, thankfully, is an extremely stable star. It still has natural swings in energy output, but they're really small. For example, there are approximately 11-year periods of activity called solar cycles, where the sun's activity increases and then decreases. These changes in energy output are on the order of 0.1 percent, explained Geoff Reeves, who researches space weather at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "The sun has small variations in the amount of light and heat that comes out," said Reeves, noting the last two solar cycles have been below-average in energy output.


The major driver of modern climate change, according to scientists at top U.S. research agencies and universities, is the alteration of the planet's atmosphere. "There are big changes in our atmosphere," said Reeves. "That's a simple and straightforward explanation that we understand the physics of." (Full Story)


How NASA's oxygen-making machine could change Mars forever


Fission power system on the surface of Mars, NASA illustration.


NASA estimates that the first crew that ventures to Mars will need roughly 30 kilowatts each day for general life support. A full-scale MOXIE, will use roughly the same amount of energy. Nuclear engineer Dave Poston of the Los Alamos National Laboratory says nuclear is an efficient and safe alternative to solar: a single nuclear reactor could replace a football field-sized solar array. You get “more power per kilogram from the reactor than the solar power system," he says.


This technology isn’t new. Between November 2017 and March 2018, NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory, among other partners, tested a nuclear fission reactor called the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology, or KRUSTY. Last year, the Los Alamos National Laboratory agreed to license plans for the reactor to Poston and fellow LANL nuclear engineer Patrick McClure's New Mexico-based company Space Nuclear Power Corporation, also known as SpaceNukes. (Full Story)


A year in, let's take stock of pandemic lessons


Covid-19, NIH image


When the coronavirus hit, the Department of Energy put the technical power of the national laboratories to work as an integrated National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory through funding from the CARES Act to impact manufacturing, epidemiological planning, testing and molecular therapeutic research and development.


At Los Alamos, we were called on to answer difficult science questions: from the efficacy of different testing methods, to how aerosols are dispersed in different environments, to forecasting the spread of the virus. Our expertise in bioassay, fluid dynamics and agent-based computer modeling enabled us to quickly pivot our focus to answer those questions. We have also answered questions about how to best store and transport testing kits, how the variants mutate, how different mitigation strategies impact school reopenings, and how to prioritize certain populations for vaccination to maximize the benefits. (Full Story)


‘It’s going to touch everything.’ Energy Department weaves AI into mission-critical work


The Energy Department, in all aspects of its work, is turning to artificial intelligence to accelerate its output.


Irene Qualters, the associate lab director for simulation & computation at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the lab is working to harden AI algorithms against threats, improving the explainability of AI-produced results and quantifying the certainty AI models have in making predictions.


The lab is also looking at AI’s usefulness to study climate and natural disasters. “AI is opening a whole new avenue of exploration and understanding,” Qualters said. "DOE’s AI research in some cases focuses heavily on infrastructure use cases, while the National Science Foundation supports some of the fundamental research behind AI." (Full Story)



New Los Alamos technology detects thermal neutrons in aircraft


TinMan provides needed information to the aerospace industry, image from LANL.


new technology developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Honeywell is providing needed atmospheric environment information to the aerospace industry. The device, called TinMan, has quantified the number of thermal neutrons, particles created by natural solar radiation—giving the aerospace industry a standard by which it can evaluate its semiconductor parts.


"Few studies have been conducted related to the impacts of thermal neutrons on aircraft, and no one has been able to define their intensity inside planes," said Stephen Wender, an instrument scientist in the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center. "It wasn't until recently that they were theorized to pose an impact on component reliability." (Full Story)


Also from PhysOrg this week:


Magnetic uranium sets new record


A system of uranium-cobalt-aluminum doped with ruthenium, LANL image.


magnetic uranium compound has demonstrated to possess extremely strong thermoelectric properties, generating four times the transverse voltage from heat than the previous record in a cobalt-manganese-gallium compound.


"We found that the large spin-orbit coupling and strong electronic correlations in a system of uranium-cobalt-aluminum doped with ruthenium resulted in a colossal anomalous Nernst conductivity," said Filip Ronning, lead investigator on the paper published today in Science Advances. Ronning is director of the Institute for Materials Science at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "It illustrates that uranium and actinide alloys are promising materials to study the interplay among a material's topology and strong electron correlations. (Full Story)


Also from American Laboratory


Probing wet fire smoke in clouds – Can water intensify the Earth’s warming?


Rio Medio fire on August 30, 2020. Photo by Manvendra Dubey.


first-of-its-kind instrument that samples smoke from megafires and scans humidity will help researchers better understand the scale and long-term impact of fires—specifically how far and high the smoke will travel; when and where it will rain; and whether the wet smoke will warm the climate by absorbing sunlight.


“Smoke containing soot and other toxic particles from megafires can travel thousands of kilometers at high altitudes where winds are fast and air is dry,” said Manvendra Dubey, a Los Alamos National Laboratory atmospheric scientist and co-author on a paper published last week in Aerosol Science and Technology. “These smoke-filled clouds can absorb much more sunlight than dry soot—but this effect on light absorption has been difficult to measure because laser-based techniques heat the particles and evaporate the water, which corrupt observations.” (Full Story)


Also from the Los Alamos Reporter


Translation software enables efficient DNA data storage


DNA offers a way to store huge amounts of data cost-effectively.  Image from LANL.


In support of a major collaborative project to store massive amounts of data in DNA molecules, a Los Alamos National Laboratory–led team has developed a key enabling technology that translates digital binary files into the four-letter genetic alphabet needed for molecular storage.


“Our software, the Adaptive DNA Storage Codec (ADS Codex), translates data files from what a computer understands into what biology understands,” said Latchesar Ionkov, a computer scientist at Los Alamos and principal investigator on the project. “It’s like translating from English to Chinese, only harder.” (Full Story)


New class of versatile, high-performance quantum dots primed for medical imaging, quantum computing


Vladimir Sayevich works on infrared-emitting quantum dots. LANL photo.


new class of quantum dots deliver a stable stream of single, spectrally tunable infrared photons under ambient conditions and at room temperature, unlike other single photon emitters. This breakthrough opens a range of practical applications, including quantum communication, quantum metrology, medical imaging and diagnostics, and clandestine labeling.


“The demonstration of high single-photon purity in the infrared has immediate utility in areas such as quantum key distribution for secure communication,” said Victor Klimov, lead author of a paper published today in Nature Nanotechnology by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists. (Full Story)


Also from the LA Reporter


Fabrication method paves way for large-scale perovskite production


Perovskite dipping process. LANL image.


simple, synthetic process for fabricating stable perovskite solar cells has overcome a preventative challenge to large-scale production, and, as a result, to product commercialization. A team from Los Alamos National Laboratory and National Taiwan University developed a one-step spin coating method using a liquid solvent called sulfolane that enabled it to produce high-yield, large-area photovoltaic devices that are efficient in solar power generation and possess a long operational lifetime. 


“Our work paves the way for low-cost, high-throughput, commercial-scale production of large-scale solar modules in the near future,” said Wanyi Nie, corresponding author and research scientist fellow in the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at Los Alamos. (Full Story)



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