Science and Technology Making Headlines

June 28, 2024

NIF chamber

Researchers at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility for the fourth time have achieved a net energy gain from a nuclear fusion reaction.

Show me the money

Fusion has garnered something of a reputation in the energy industry for always being 30 years away. However, scientists and engineers from around the world gathered at The Science Museum in London recently to listen to the ambitious plans to get “fusion electrons on the grid by the 2030s.”   

The UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) FUSION24 showcased the goals and vision of the international fusion community, highlighting recent advancements, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) fourth net energy gain from a nuclear fusion reaction.

Tammy Ma, the lead for the Inertial Fusion Energy Initiative at LLNL, said making the giant leap to commercial scale for the Lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) and those like it would only be possible with increased levels of investment.

“For NIF, we are trying to push up to much higher gains in the next couple years, but it is science so I cannot give a prediction on when that will happen,” she said. “In terms of building a full-scale power plant, it depends on overall investment, and it will take partnership between the public and private sector. It is crude, but progress is measured by the amount of money that goes into the system.”


A LLNL scientist is working on a technique to slingshot a spacecraft around the sun to increase its speed. (Image: NASA)

That’s hot stuff

Slingshotting around the sun would make a spacecraft travel faster than ever.

There are several different ideas to support that goal, and most of the more successful have used the suns gravity well, typically by slingshotting around it, as is commonly done with Jupiter.

But, there are still significant hurdles when doing so, not the least of which is the energy radiating from the sun simply vaporizing anything that gets close enough to utilize a gravity assist. Thats the problem a project supported by NASAs Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) and run by Jason Benkoski, now of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is trying to solve.

The solution involved combining two separate systems — a
heat shield and a thermal propellant system. According to the projects final report, combining those two technologies could allow a spacecraft to perform what is known as an Oberth maneuver around the sun.

Benkoski and his team developed a material that is capable of withstanding up to 2700 degrees Kelvin. While that is still not anywhere near the temperature of the suns surface, which can reach up to 5800 K, its enough to get pretty close, and thereby unlock a spacecrafts ability to use an Oberth maneuver (a powered flyby) in the first place.

azo quantum

gamma ray burst

Artist’s rendering of a black hole emitting a jet of hot gas known as plasma. An international team of scientists, including Rochester researchers, has generated plasma “fireballs” experimentally, opening a new frontier in laboratory astrophysics. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Bursting with excitement

A new lab experiment has recreated the conditions of gamma-ray bursts. An international team of scientists, including researchers from Lawrence Livermore, have generated high-density relativistic electron-positron pair-plasma beams (similar to those found in gamma-ray bursts) by creating two to three orders of magnitude more pairs than previously reported.

Two of the universes densest known objects are black holes and neutron stars. Alongside solids, liquids and gases, plasmas are the fourth fundamental state of matter, which exists within and around these extreme astrophysical environments.

Plasmas at these extreme conditions are called relativistic electron-position pair plasmas because they consist of a mixture of electrons and positrons traveling at almost the speed of light. Although these plasmas are common in deep-space environments, creating them in a lab setting has proven difficult.


bridge bio molecule

This image depicts a surface representation of the interaction among the cancer drug candidate, BBO-8520 (yellow), the natural substrate guanosine triphosphate (or GTP, orange) and a KRAS protein (cyan). (Image: LLNL team)

From simulation to clinical trials

Three supercomputers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) were instrumental in developing a novel cancer treatment that will go into clinical trials this month.

The FDA approved the drug in December 2023, which will now be used to treat non-small-cell lung cancer. LLNL teamed up with BridgeBio and the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNL) to develop BBO-8520, a small-molecule cancer drug that targets KRAS mutations, which are protein errors involved in many cancers that were previously considered “undruggable.”

This drug is known as “first-in-class,” which means no other drug targets the specific binding site and protein in the cancers that the team is studying. KRAS genes are a subset of the RAS gene family, which cancer researchers have been studying for decades. RAS genes mainly encode proteins central to cell signaling. Mutations of these genes are implicated in 30% of cancers, including pancreatic, lung and colorectal cancer.

Felice Lightstone, the principal investigator of this project at LLNL, said the project wouldn’t have been possible without high-performance computing. LLNL supercomputers Ruby, Quartz and Lassen significantly lowered the cost and shortened the timeline of drug development. Later this year, LLNL will have another three supercomputer systems — El Capitan, RZAdams and Tuolumne — added to their roster, bringing their total number of Top500 supercomputers to 14.

Space News


Composite image of the Andromeda galaxy created from images from the GEOStare2 mission that used a Lawrence Livermore monolith telescope payload on a Terran Orbital smallsat.(Image: LLNL)

Pay up in space

A space imaging payload developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was selected for a U.S. Space Force mission intended to test military capabilities to rapidly deploy satellites in response to threats in orbit.

The planned mission, known as Victus Haze, is projected to launch in 2025. Two spacecraft — one from Rocket Lab and another from True Anomaly — will perform maneuvers in close proximity. The Livermore payload will be integrated in Rocket Labs vehicle. 

Victus Haze is a “tactically responsive” mission that requires contractors to be ready to launch on short notice, and the Space Force expects the satellites to be operational within hours after launch.

Ben Bahney, head of Lawrence Livermore’s space science and security program, said the Lab will provide a monolithic telescope built from a single piece of fused silica, “eliminating the need for alignment and calibration after manufacture while still providing the best possible resolution.”


LLNL landscape

LLNL Report takes a break

The LLNL Report will take a break for the Fourth of July holiday. It will return July 12, 2024.

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.