EMC: Celebrating three decades of explosive innovation

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The Lab’s Energetic Materials Center celebrates 30 years of providing technical expertise to support the nuclear security enterprise.

For 30 years, the Laboratory’s Energetic Materials Center (EMC) has built critical expertise, enabling scientific investigation in support of the nuclear deterrent and keeping the nation safe from emerging explosives and nuclear proliferation. 

On June 23, the EMC will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its founding. Recognizing that expertise in high explosives (HEs) — a type of explosive material (EM) used, among other applications, to trigger nuclear devices — would remain vital to national security after the cessation of nuclear testing, the Laboratory proposed an organization in which chemists, engineers and physicists would apply broad and deep wells of expertise and resources.

The core disciplines of energetic materials maturation would combine with experimentation at world-class facilities, such as the High Explosives Applications Facility (HEAF) and the more remote Site 300 and high-fidelity modeling and simulation to provide the basis for scientific advances in EMs.

The EMC was established to sustain ongoing HE research and serve four strategic goals: maintenance of needed capabilities for the nuclear-weapons program; development of strategic partnership programs with the Department of Defense (DoD); the transition of technology to industry from Department of Energy national laboratories; and the advancement of EM science in partnership with universities. 

Over the decades, the center has transitioned from a component of stockpile sustainment to an essential player in modernizing the U.S. nuclear, conventional, missile-defense, industrial-capability and other deterrents. As former director Ron Atkins put it, EMC has become “the country’s most important repository of energetic materials expertise.” The defense, oil-exploration, mining and explosives-detection industries benefit as well, using EMC science and technology to optimize materials efficiency for applications as varied as warheads and oil well stimulation, improve operational safety, capitalize on novel materials and improve radiographic and chemical detection. 

Today, EMC scientists continue to apply their expertise to develop solutions for DoD conventional weapons, explore new ways to detect and defeat homemade explosives for the Department of Homeland Security and develop strategies to counter the threat of improvised explosive devices for nuclear counterterrorism and counterproliferation. 

In the past decade, EMC has embarked on its greatest challenge yet with the launch of nuclear modernization efforts at Lawrence Livermore, beginning with the arrival of the W80-4 Life Extension Program (LEP) in 2014, and more recently with the W87-1 Modification Program in 2019. The proposed Energetic Materials Development Enclave at Site 300 — a partnership between Lawrence Livermore and the Pantex Plant — will drive a new approach to accelerate the adoption of new explosive materials and production capability within the nuclear security enterprise. EMC researchers also shepherded development of the novel explosive LX-21, the first new explosive to be introduced into a nuclear warhead without full-scale underground testing.

Looking toward the 2030s and beyond, the center aims to enable the study of a reacting material at nanosecond resolution and micrometer-length scales not previously possible. Future advances require scrutiny of predictive codes, taking advantage of graphics processing unit architectures and applying machine learning and data science.

EMC plans to remain the first place the National Nuclear Security Administration, DoD and other government agencies think of when they need energetics expertise. Says EMC Director Lara Leininger, “After 30 years, the Energetic Materials Center is ready and agile for whatever comes next.”

For an expanded version of this article, visit Science and Technology Review.

– Margaret Davis and Ben Kennedy