Science and Technology Making Headlines

Jan. 12, 2024

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The target after LLNL’s milestone ignition shot on Dec. 5, 2022.

The target after LLNL’s milestone ignition shot on Dec. 5, 2022.

TIME will tell

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) had spent more than 13 years trying and failing to attain fusion ignition, meaning that the reaction outputs more energy than scientists put into it.

Some expert observers thought it would never work. Yet, there, in the facility’s experimental database was the evidence. At 1:03:50 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2022, NIF’s 192 powerful laser beams had plowed 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy onto a small gold cylinder, which converted that ultraviolet radiation into powerful X-rays that enveloped a peppercorn-sized diamond capsule containing two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. For the briefest of instants, the interior of that capsule collapsed to 100 times the density of lead, forcing the hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium and converting a tiny amount of mass into enormous amounts of energy. About 70 trillionths of a second later, the capsule exploded, releasing 3.15 MJ of energy, equivalent to about three sticks of dynamite.

The result was a scientific wonder, a feat that researchers had hoped to create in a laboratory since scientists first started bandying about the idea of using controlled nuclear fusion to produce electricity in the 1950s out such a process in the laboratory has eluded scientists and engineers for decades.

The primary impetus for NIF’s construction was the promise that fusion reactions ignited by the facility’s powerful lasers would yield data that would help the U.S. maintain its nuclear arsenal without underground nuclear testing. NIF leadership stresses that advancement in fusion energy and fundamental physics are important co-benefits of that work — and it is true that in some ways, those three aims are inseparable. Foundationally, though, the drive to produce broad new scientific research and advance fusion energy comes second. “The purpose for NIF is our nuclear deterrent,” said Mark Herrmann, program director for weapon physics and design at NIF. “There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about that.”

Asteroids don’t have to have an impact on Earth

A modeling tool developed by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows the progression an asteroid being broken up by a theoretical nuclear device detonated near the the surface of the near-Earth object. Graphic illustration courtesy of Mary Burkey.

Asteroids don’t have to have an impact on Earth

Lawrence Livermore scientists have simulated using a nuclear bomb to defend Earth against a catastrophic asteroid impact.

While it sounds like a strategy taken straight from a science fiction film, deploying a nuclear device has been proposed as one possible solution for protecting our planet in the event that a large and potentially dangerous asteroid — or other near-Earth object — is found to be on a collision course with our world.

“In the event of an incoming asteroid, decision-makers will need accurate information on what options are available to them immediately. However, generating data on a nuclear mitigation mission requires running simulations, which are deeply complicated and resource-intensive problems,” said LLNL physicist Mary Burkey, who led the research.

Predicting the effectiveness of a potential nuclear deflection or disruption mission depends on accurate simulations that are difficult to conduct. In an attempt to address this, LLNL researchers have developed a new modeling tool for assessing the potential use of a nuclear device against an asteroid. The product of the latest research is a model that approximates everything that happens as the X-rays produced by the nuclear device deposit their energy on the surface of the asteroid using a simplified but functional model.


Morgan State University undergraduates use their smartphone accelerometers to produce seismocardiograms — recordings of the body vibrations produced by heartbeats. The accuracy of the readings are comparable to traditional electrocardiograms. Using the sensors, doctors were able to detect a previously undiagnosed heart condition in David Rakestraw, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist who developed the experiment. Photo courtesy of Arnesto Bowman/Morgan State University.

A physics game changer

Virtually every high school and college student in high-income countries has at their fingertips a powerful and versatile tool, equipped with all the sensors and visualizations needed to do experiments suitable for an introductory physics course. But most physics educators have yet to catch on to the opportunities that could arise from using smartphones in their labs.

“By far the greatest number of teachers in high school and college are still completely unaware of the potential of these devices,” said David Rakestraw, who has spent the past four years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory developing hundreds of physics experiments for smartphones and a 3,000-page guide to performing them. “It’s difficult to get people to recognize new ideas and implement them, particularly because the vast majority of teachers don’t know where to find information,” he said.

Rakestraw’s free curriculum, called Physics with Phones, provides teachers and professors with step-by-step directions, plus written quizzes and other instructional material. He discovered smartphone teaching when he took a sabbatical from Lawrence Livermore to teach high school physics for a year. “I realized that the literature and the people working in this area had just scratched the surface of what is possible,” he said.

In the past two years, Rakestraw has relentlessly promoted his guide. He estimates he has reached several thousand students in classrooms and presented to around 700 educators at regional workshops and conferences of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the National Science Teaching Association. By the end of his teacher workshops, he says, “every one of their jaws have dropped. They say, ‘My gosh, I had no idea you could do that.’”

Livermorium, Flerovium (element 114)

Flerovium (element 114) with the symbol Fl, and Livermorium(element 116 0 with the symbol Lv, were two of the heavy elements the Russian-American collaboration discovered.

The collaboration that made it heavy

One of the most successful scientific collaborations between Russia and the U.S. discovered five elements and then it quietly folded.

The Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia, houses the machine and the team that discovered the five heaviest elements currently known. It was all thanks to a partnership that had begun almost 30 years earlier, between two former adversaries. "It was a special, perhaps unique, long-running collaboration," recalled Mark Stoyer, a staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and part of the American team that united with the Russians. It was a collaboration that was “extremely scientifically productive and fruitful,” Stoyer said.

Since the 1940s, element discovery has pushed beyond the elements that exist naturally on Earth. Instead, they are created through nuclear fusion – smashing two atomic nuclei together, to create superheavy radioactive elements. For 40 years, the US and USSR competed to add to the table, resulting in a stand-off that became known as the “transfermium wars.” By the 1980s, a new rival team at GSI Darmstadt in Germany also had started making elements. To gain the advantage once more, Georgy Flerov, head of JINR at the time, took an unprecedented step. In 1989, while at a conference, he spoke to LLNL scientist Ken Hulet and invited him to work with them. A new Russian–American team had been formed, in direct competition with the team at nearby Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.


KRAS G12C mutation in non-small cell lung cancer

A closeup view of KRAS G12C mutation in non-small cell lung cancer. Image by Adobe Stock.

Lung cancer patients get a boost

BridgeBio, a commercial-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on genetic diseases and cancers, announced that the United States Food and Drug Administration has cleared the investigational new drug application for BBO-8520, a first-in-class orally bioavailable and highly potent small molecule direct inhibitor for lung cancer patients.

The new drug was the result of a collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers.  It is specifically designed to provide patients afflicted with KRASG12C mutant cancers with a best-in-class, oral small molecule therapy that directly targets the tumor at its source — oncogenic KRASG12C GTP-bound (ON) signaling.

Enrollment of patients with KRASG12C mutant non-small cell lung cancer into the ONKORAS-101 trial is expected to begin this year.

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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.