Lab Report

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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.

Oct. 7, 2022

clauser

Former LLNL physicist John Clauser has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with French scientist Alain Aspect and Austrian scientist Anton Zeilinger.

forbes 2022

Entangling a Nobel Prize

Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger will share the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering discoveries in quantum information science. The award was announced on Tuesday, Oct. 4, following the trio’s selection by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish polymath and inventor of dynamite, bequeathed the majority of his estate to create five prizes (Chemistry, Physics and Physiology/Medicine plus one in literature and one for peace), recognizing “those, who during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Physics is the first award mentioned in Nobel’s will, a possible indication of the importance he accorded it. Through 2021, the Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded 115 times to 219 Nobel Prize laureates.

This year’s Nobel Laureates in Physics were recognized for each having “conducted groundbreaking experiments using entangled quantum states, where two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated. Their results have cleared the way for new technology based upon quantum information.” The three laureates’ work has helped lead to new applications of the principles of quantum mechanics, including quantum computers, quantum networks and secure quantum encrypted communication.

“It has become increasingly clear that a new kind of quantum technology is emerging. We can see that the laureates’ work with entangled states is of great importance, even beyond the fundamental questions about the interpretation of quantum mechanics,” says Anders Irbäck, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics.

Alain Aspect was born in 1947 in Agen, France. He earned his PhD in 1983 from Paris-Sud University, Orsay, France. He serves as Professor at Université Paris-Saclay and École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France.

John Clauser was born in 1942 in Pasadena, California. His PhD is from Columbia University, earned in 1969. He is a research physicist with J.F. Clauser & Associates in Walnut Creek, California. From 1969 to 1996 he worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley.

Anton Zeilinger was born 1945 in Ried im Innkreis, Austria. He earned his PhD in 1971 from the University of Vienna, where he currently is a professor.

dart

On Sept. 26, 2022, DART impacted the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, a small body just 530 feet (160 meters) in diameter. It orbits a larger, 2,560-foot (780-meter) asteroid called Didymos.

Saving the world one smack at a time

NASA has made history as it deliberately flew a spacecraft straight into an asteroid – all in an effort to save the planet from future destruction. The first-of-its-kind mission to knock a celestial object off-course started 10 months ago when NASA launched a spacecraft the size of a refrigerator from Vandenberg in California. 

Last week, the space agency deliberately crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid the size of the Statue of Liberty – about 7 million miles from Earth. 

"I just could not believe it. The energy in the room was just incredible because we had all been anticipating this moment for many years. And the perseverance of the DART engineering team through the pandemic to get this spacecraft built and launched," said Megan Bruck Syal, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). 

Syal, who leads the planetary defense team at LLNL, was part of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. "All of us that have contributed to the mission over the last 8, myself and my team have contributed over the last 8 years, so it was really emotional moment. A lot of people were crying. It was just really special," she said.  

LLNL provided impact simulations and analysis for the mission. 

"It's not a disruption mission, so in media we often think of blowing up an asteroid in lots of pieces," Syal said. "This is not that, this is a gentle nudge so that most of it stays together. There's just a really big impact plume, and telescopes from ground-based observatories, telescopes from all over the world and telescopes in space are imaging that ejecta right now and seeing how it evolves."

core

An artist’s conception of Earth’s inner and outer core. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Chemists journey to the center of the Earth

The chemistry of the core drives our planet’s magnetic field and holds clues about Earth’s history. Geochemists are going to extremes to understand it.

Coming to a consensus on core chemistry might be easier if scientists better understood the basic properties of iron under high pressures and temperatures. It was not until this year, for instance, that researchers published the first experimental measurements of the melting point of iron at Earth-core pressures and higher.

Few facilities can reach the necessary pressures in a controlled fashion while making measurements. It took scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) nearly 20 years to develop the techniques for this recent iron study, which required the use of one of the world’s most precise, powerful laser systems, the National Ignition Facility. The resulting experiment allowed researchers to study iron’s properties at pressures found in Earth’s core and at higher ones possibly found at the center of large exoplanets called super-Earths.

Richard Kraus, a shock physicist at LLNL, says the experiment was designed to determine whether super-Earths could have magnetic fields generated by Earth-like dynamos. The carefully crafted experiment emulates the conditions that a lump of iron would experience while falling to the core of a planet.

During the experiments, the researchers first subjected an iron sample to a high-pressure, high-temperature state. Then they increased the pressure to simulate what might happen as iron descends to a planetary core. Throughout this process, they used X-ray diffraction to check whether the iron was solid or liquid. Of the 12 shots used for the iron experiment, which was carried out over 3 years, 7 worked well enough to yield publishable data

Theoretical modeling can play a critical role in guiding experimental directions and design, but predicted material properties must be verified in the lab. Scientists can’t just rely on extrapolations based on experimental results at standard temperature and pressure, because strange things happen in planetary cores. “This is outside our realm of intuition,” Kraus says.

red dwarf

This illustration shows a red dwarf star orbited by a hypothetical exoplanet. Red dwarfs tend to be magnetically active, displaying gigantic arcing prominences and a wealth of dark sunspots. Red dwarfs also erupt with intense flares that could strip a nearby planet’s atmosphere over time or make the surface inhospitable to life as we know it. Image courtesy NASA, ESA and D. Player (STScI).

Diving headfirst into red dwarfs

Red dwarfs are the most abundant stars in the Milky Way, making up 70% of all stars.

But the physics of their interiors is not well understood. Heat is generated in the core and travels outward to the surface, but it is not clear whether that process occurs via radiation, convection or a combination of the two. The key factor determining whether red dwarfs are radiation- or convection-dominated is the opacity of the internal hydrogen.

Lawrence Livermore researchers using the National Ignition Facility, the world's largest and most energetic laser, are exploring the opacity of hydrogen under the extreme pressures and relatively low temperatures found in the interior of red dwarfs.

Red dwarfs are very low-mass stars. As a result, they have relatively low pressures, a low fusion rate and low temperature. The energy generated is the product of nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium by way of the proton–proton (PP) chain mechanism. These stars emit relatively little light.

LLNL scientists and collaborators propose a novel implosion experiment at NIF to measure the opacity of dense hydrogen due to free-free absorption, thought to be the dominant absorption mechanism for that environment.

element

A new compound of curium (a radioactive, rare and costly element) photographed at LLNL during crystallography experiments. The team from LLNL and OSU used the so-called “polyoxometalate ligands” (POMs) to capture rare isotopes and form crystals big enough to be characterized, even when only 1-10 micrograms of the rare isotope are available. Crystals of this curium compound are uncolored under ambient light but glow intensely pink-red when exposed to ultraviolet light. Image by Gauthier Deblonde/LLNL.

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A tough task

The synthesis and study of radioactive compounds are naturally difficult due to the extreme toxicity of the materials involved, but also because of the cost and scarcity of research isotopes.

Lawrence Livermore scientists and their collaborators at Oregon State University have developed a new method to isolate and study in great detail some of the rarest and most toxic elements on Earth.

Traditional synthetic methods and chemical studies focus on small inorganic or organic complexes of the studied isotope and typically require several milligrams of sample per attempt. Milligram quantities may not sound like a lot, but for some isotopes this is equivalent to the world’s yearly supply. Some radioisotopes also are too costly, too short-lived or too toxic to be studied with current methods, leaving them out of reach for detailed chemical studies.

In the new research, the team demonstrated that by leveraging fundamental chemical properties, such as molecular weight and solubility, it is possible to synthesize coordination compounds of rare/toxic/radioactive/precious elements and characterize them in great detail, while using very tiny amounts, down to the microgram scale. The new method requires more than 1,000 times less material than prior state-of-the art approaches, representing a groundbreaking tool to advance knowledge of the most difficult-to-study elements on Earth.