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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's top 10 Science Stories of 2012

In 2012, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory built on 60 years of translating basic science concepts into technologies that address pressing real world problems while expanding the boundaries of fundamental science.

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In 2012, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory built on 60 years of translating basic science concepts into technologies that address pressing real world problems while expanding the boundaries of fundamental science. The top 10 science and technology stories of the year are a reflection of the laboratory's ability to apply its core national security competencies to a broad set of national and global challenges, including: energy; climate change; bio defense and detection; forensic science; high performance computing; and materials science.

Because evaluating the long-term impact of recent scientific developments on a field of study or science in general is difficult at best, the following advances are not listed in order of scientific importance. These represent only a sampling of the science and technology stories during the 2012 calendar year.

Image Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

1. New heavy elements join the periodic table: The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially approved new names for elements 114 and 116, the latest heavy elements to be added to the periodic table. Scientists of the Lawrence Livermore-Dubna collaboration proposed the names as Flerovium for element 114, with the symbol Fl, and Livermorium for element 116, with the symbol Lv, late last year. Read more.

2. Pushing the boundaries of high performance computing: In partnership with IBM, LLNL deployed Sequoia, a 20 petaflops BlueGene/Q system, which in June was No. 1 on the industry-standard Top500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers, the Green 500 list of the world's most energy efficient HPC systems, and the Graph 500 list of systems able to solve analytic problems -- the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack. Sequoia dropped to No. 2 on the November 2012 Top500. Sequoia's power made possible the development of Cardioid, a detailed 3D simulation of the human heart's electrophysiology that can model a beating heart in near real time. Developed in partnership with IBM, Cardioid has the potential to advance the treatment of arrhythmia and the development of new drugs and therapies. The techniques developed to model a system as complex as the human heart will be applicable to National Nuclear Security Administration missions in stewardship of the nation's nuclear deterrent when the Sequoia transitions to classified work in early 2013. Read more.

3. A milestone for laser fusion science and technology: Fifteen years of work by LLNL's National Ignition Facility (NIF) team paid off on July 5 with an historic record-breaking laser shot. The NIF laser system of 192 beams delivered more than 500 trillion watts (terawatts or TW) of peak power and 1.85 megajoules (MJ) of ultraviolet laser light to its target. Five hundred terawatts is 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time, and 1.85 megajoules of energy is about 100 times what any other laser regularly produces today. The shot validated NIF's most challenging laser performance specifications set in the late 1990s, when scientists were planning the world's most energetic laser facility. Combining extreme levels of energy and peak power on a target in NIF is a critical requirement for achieving one of physics' grand challenges -- igniting hydrogen fusion fuel in the laboratory and producing more energy than that supplied to the target. Read more.

4. Providing a better understanding of the causes and effects of climate change: Extreme summer temperatures are already occurring more frequently in the United States, and will become normal by mid-century if the world continues on a business-as-usual schedule of emitting greenhouse gases. By analyzing observations and results obtained from climate models, a study led by Phil Duffy of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory showed that previously rare high summertime temperatures are already occurring more frequently in some regions of the 48 contiguous United States. Read more.

Other Lawrence Livermore contributions to the understanding of climate change include:

  • The observed ocean warming over the last 50 years is consistent with climate models only if the models include the impacts of observed increases in greenhouse gas during the 20th century. Read more.
  • A clear change in salinity has been detected in the world's oceans, signaling shifts and acceleration in the global rainfall and evaporation cycle tied directly to climate change. Read more.
  • By deciphering the makeup of a bacterium found in the soil of a tropical rain forest, scientists may have a better understanding of how to more efficiently produce biofuels. The production of liquid fuels derived from plant biomass offers a promising technology for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.

5. Developing a new forensic approach to identifying human remains: In an effort to identify the thousands of John/Jane Doe cold cases in the United States, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher and a team of international collaborators have found a multidisciplinary approach to identifying the remains of missing persons. Using "bomb pulse" radiocarbon analysis developed at Lawrence Livermore, combined with recently developed anthropological analysis and forensic DNA techniques, the researchers were able to identify the remains of a missing child 41 years after the discovery of the body. Read more.

6. Early stages of radiation damage simulated for the first time: For the first time, Laboratory researchers simulated and quantified the early stages of radiation damage that will occur in a given material. The new method opens up the possibility of predicting the effect of radiation on a wide range of complex materials. The research not only applies to materials for nuclear applications, but also for materials related to the space industry, and new processing techniques for lasers and highly energetic ions. In biology and medicine, it also may contribute to understanding the effects of radiation on living tissues, both for damage and therapeutic processes. Read more.

7. Plastic developed for the detection of nuclear material for improved protection of ports and large facilities: In a key discovery, a team of LLNL researchers developed the first plastic material capable of efficiently distinguishing neutrons from gamma rays, something not thought possible for the past five decades or so. As a result, the new technology could assist in detecting nuclear substances such as plutonium and uranium that terrorists might use in improvised nuclear devices, and could help in detecting neutrons in major scientific projects. With the material's low cost, huge plastic sheets could be formed easily into dramatically larger surface areas than other neutron detectors currently used and could aid in the protection of ports, stadiums and other large facilities. Read more.

8. Novel nanotube fabric developed to protect soldiers in the field: Laboratory scientists and collaborators begin development of a new military uniform material that repels chemical and biological agents using a novel carbon nanotube fabric. The material will be designed to undergo a rapid transition from a breathable state to a protective state. The highly breathable membranes would have pores made of a few-nanometer-wide vertically aligned carbon nanotubes that are surface modified with a chemical warfare agent-responsive functional layer. Response to the threat would be triggered by direct chemical warfare agent attack to the membrane surface, at which time the fabric would switch to a protective state by closing the carbon nanotube pore entrance or by shedding the contaminated surface layer. Read more.

9. High performance coating technology developed to protect materials: High Velocity Laser Accelerated Deposition (known as HVLAD) is a new photonic method for producing protective coatings with ultra-high-strength, explosively bonded interfaces. These coatings prevent corrosion, wear and other modes of degradation in extreme environments. The integrity of the interfacial bond achieved with HVLAD enables industrial systems to achieve exceptional reliability and service life. This could be highly valuable for protecting the nation's industrial infrastructure from degradation caused by prolonged exposure to extreme environments. HVLAD was one of six technologies Lab researchers had a hand in developing that earned R&D 100 Awards, the "Oscars of invention." Read more.

10. LLNL licenses microbial detection array for food safety, law enforcement and medical research: The Laboratory licensed its microbial detection array technology to a St. Louis, Mo.-based company, MOgene LC, a supplier of DNA microarrays and instruments. Known formally as the Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA), the technology could enable food safety professionals, law enforcement, medical professionals and others to detect within 24 hours any virus or bacteria that has been sequenced and included among the array's probes. Read more.