Science and Technology Making Headlines

Sept. 8, 2023


Diablo Magazine recently named LLNL’s Annie Kritcher as one of the East Bay prize winners. Photo by Blaise Douros/LLNL.

It’s a team effort

The Tri-Valley area can claim an astonishing number of top prize winners, as there are many Nobelists, MacArthur “Genuises,” and other awardees with roots in our own backyard. Meet three of the most recent honorees — physicist Andrea Kritcher, lawyer Priti Krishtel, and writer Hua Hsu.

Kritcher played a key role in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s attainment of fusion ignition — a breakthrough with epic implications.

For 60 years, scientists and engineers have been on a quest to achieve controlled nuclear fusion ignition — a major step on the path to clean, limitless energy. When it finally happened on Dec. 5 last year, most of the team behind the feat were asleep. “We were so excited, but individually from home,” says Andrea Kritcher, the principal designer of the experiment, who learned of its success at 1 a.m.

That humans can now ignite and control a plasma, like a small sun, was hailed by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm as “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” and it landed Kritcher on the 2023 Time 100. The honor highlights the most influential people of the year and celebrates them at an event at New York’s Lincoln Center.

It’s been a whirlwind, media-filled several months for Kritcher, a mother of three who normally leads a quiet life in Livermore. And she always credits the whole interdisciplinary team at the Lab who contributed to this achievement. “You sort of pinch yourself when you’re standing next to Ali Wong or Katie Couric,” she said. “But I’m just trying to go with it and have fun and enjoy this time. I think it’s awesome that people care so much about what we’re doing.”

Hydrogen Fuel News

solar panel

LLNL researchers and collaborators are working a system using gallium nitrate to harness sunshine into carbon free hydrogen fuel. Image by Adobe Stock.

Walking on sunshine

Scientists from the University of Michigan have made important discoveries regarding the semiconductive use of gallium nitrate (GaN) three years ago, focusing on the advantages it has to offer solar energy technology. More recently that same discovery is being examined with respect to the advantages it presents to hydrogen fuel production.

The researchers found that silicon and GaN could be used in an artificial photosynthesis device. The device made of silicon and GaN was able to harness sunlight into carbon-free hydrogen fuel with twice the efficiency and stability of existing technology. With such a focus on H2 as the world decarbonizes and governments provide grants, subsidies and tax breaks to companies developing new tech in this area, scientists are taking a closer look at that discovery.

Researchers from Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories are working with a team at the University of Michigan. Together, they have discovered a self-improving property in Silicon and GaN (Si/GaN) that plays a role in the high efficiency of the material and its stable performance in the conversion of sunlight and water into carbon-free H2.


LLNL’s Tayyab Suratwala recently gave a keynote presentation on the role of optics at the National Ignition Facility. Photo by LLNL.

Seeing fusion through optics

The 2023 Optical Fabrication and Testing Topical Meeting (OF&T) recently met in Québec City, Canada, as a part of Optica’s Design and Fabrication Congress to convene on new concepts and emerging applications in optics manufacturing and metrology.

Seats were filled to hear the keynote presentation by Optica fellow Tayyab Suratwala, program director for Optics and Materials Science and Technology (OMST) at Lawrence Livermore. He discussed optical technologies behind one of the most notable scientific breakthroughs in decades.

To keep NIF in a state of continuous operation and testing, Suratwala’s team has developed a robust system of keeping the optics in good function by routinely recycling some of them to repair any laser damage, at a small fraction of the cost and time for obtaining a new optic. NIF’s optics are routinely tested, removed, repaired and cleaned on-site. At the same time, the team experiments with new fabrication and processing methods to enable higher optic laser damage resistance, and therefore greater NIF energy and power. Suratwala said, “A 20-year-long science and technology investment has enabled transitioning optical fabrication and processing from an ‘art’ to more of a science. Tremendous progress has been made in improving the damage resistance of as-fabricated fused silica optics.”

“Managing NIF optics damage is like peeling a growing onion…as challenges are mitigated, new challenges arise with increased power and energy,” Suratwala said. “NIF final optics quality and configuration has evolved, leading to reduction in laser damage. We’ve also found success with novel production level metrologies to ensure high quality of the delivered precision optics.”

Jose Herandez

NASA Astronaut and former LLNL engineer Jose Hernandez is the subject of a new biopic coming out in September. Photo courtesy of NASA.

A role model like no other

When José Hernández spoke about his 2009 trip into space as flight specialist on the shuttle Discovery — and the journey from the fields to the stars — Francisco Moreno paid attention.

The 5-foot-8, 123-pound sophomore vowed he will fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL as a wide receiver. “His talk encourages me a little bit,” said Moreno, following Hernández’s presentation in the Parlier High School gym. “It’s like if I believe that I can do it — and if my mom has faith in me — then I believe that I can do it.”

“He inspired me more, because if somebody from México and a small town like Stockton could do it, you just got to believe and achieve. You’ll be able to reach your goals,” Moreno said.

Hernández’s life story is depicted in the biopic “A Million Miles Away,” starring Michael Peña, which debuts Sept. 15 on Amazon Prime Video.


Pacific Northwest and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories and collaborators are using machine learning to build a database to guide decision-makers on vaccine development. Image by Adobe Stock.

A RAPTER for vaccines

From tackling homework challenges to drafting emails, people are discovering a vast array of applications for natural language processing tools like generative artificial intelligence (AI) engines.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Harvard Medical School (HMS) and collaborators are using this same kind of technology to build a knowledge base in order to guide decision-makers on vaccine development. Through the Rapid Assessment of Platform Technologies to Expedite Response (RAPTER) project, the scientists leverage machine learning and AI to search the scientific literature for knowledge on how to build effective vaccines against new infectious viruses and bacteria.

Historically, vaccine development is a lengthy and expensive process — often taking multiple years and millions of dollars to complete. Vaccines are typically made using one of several different strategies, or "platforms." However, different strategies can generate different immune responses. With RAPTER, researchers figure out which strategy would work best for a specific virus or bacteria to maximize the value of immune responses from the host. The tool aims to help produce new vaccines more rapidly and with a reduced timeline and cost.

Computer with email graphic

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The Lab Report is a weekly compendium of media reports on science and technology achievements at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Though the Laboratory reviews items for overall accuracy, the reporting organizations are responsible for the content in the links below.