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.

Nov. 30, 2018

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Sierra, is the second fastest supercomputer in the world, and will serve the National Nuclear Security Administration’s three nuclear security laboratories. Photo by Randy Wong/LLNL

Relying on a monster computer

In an expansive white-tiled room in Livermore, sits Sierra, the world’s second most powerful supercomputer. Sierra looks like an unassuming server farm, but is actually a massive connected monster of 190,000 processing cores. It was completed earlier this year and has been on a shakedown cruise since then. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory ran astrophysics, climate and precision medicine simulations on Sierra while ferreting out bad components and other technical hiccups.

But early next year, Sierra’s real work will begin. The system will be “air gapped,” meaning that it will be disconnected from any external network to prevent unauthorized access. Once that happens, it can begin the calculations it was built to carry out: simulations of nuclear weapons launches and detonations.

The exact nature of the simulations is classified. But engineers and physicists will use Sierra to detonate virtual nukes in the name of national security.

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Dawn Shaughnessy has helped create several elements on the periodic table.

Growing the periodic table

The periodic table is chemistry’s holy grail. It not only lists all of the tools at a chemist’s disposal, but its shape — where these elements fall into specific rows and columns — has made profound predictions about new elements and their properties that later came true. But few chemists on Earth have a closer relationship with the table than Lawrence Livermore’s Dawn Shaughnessy, whose team is partially responsible for adding six new elements to the table’s ranks.

Shaughnessy leads a team of real-life alchemists. You might be familiar with alchemy as a medieval European practice where mystics attempted to transmute elements into more valuable ones. But rather than turn the element lead into gold, Shaughnessy and her team turned plutonium into flerovium.

Shaughnessy’s parents encouraged her to pursue science from a young age — her father was an engineer, and she had an electronics kit as well as a chemistry set as a child. When she arrived at the University of California, Berkeley as an undergraduate, she learned that chemistry could be more than just mixing liquids in beakers. She could create the atoms themselves.

“It was like alchemy,” she said. “Nuclear chemistry for me was really amazing, the whole idea that you could take things, put them together and make something totally new out of it.”

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LLNL has converted many of its cafeteria product food containers into recyclables.

Going green

Lawrence Livermore received an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bio-preferred Program for purchasing bio-based materials that include all the compostable products used in Laboratory cafeterias and bio-based cleaning products used by the custodial division.

The award, presented to LLNL, was “for leadership in advancing USDA’s goals to support the purchase and use of bio-based products that are contributing to the U.S. economy, U.S. jobs and rural prosperity.”

LLNL has worked for the past several years to convert many products used in the food services program and custodial division to bio-based alternatives. Besides the benefit of reducing the use of nonrenewable resources, LLNL has realized a wide array of rewards from using bio-based products in the Lab’s cafeteria’s and facilities. LLNL has overcome barriers to the adoption of bio-based products by pilot testing products, identifying ways to balance the costs of bio-based products that at first appeared higher and realizing other paybacks such as municipal waste reduction and less impact to human health.

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A new algorithm called “Squirrel” could model power outages.

'Squirrel' to the rescue

What would it take for an entire American city to lose power? What circumstances and failures in the electrical grid’s infrastructure would lead to a dramatic, long-term blackout? And what weak points could utility companies invest in to help prevent a catastrophic shutdown?

A three-year project at LLNL is attempting to answer those questions using a new algorithm called “Squirrel” to model power outages and enable government agencies and utilities to automatically identify weaknesses in the power grid. Squirrel is part of a three-year Laboratory Directed Research & Development project aimed at determining the risk to the grid from a cyberattack, called the Quantitative Intelligent Adversary Risk Assessment (QIARA).

But because Squirrel is “cause agnostic,” according to project manager Jovana Helms, it can be used with any kind of threat or hazard, including a malicious hack, earthquake or even squirrels (which often chew into electrical wires and cause outages).

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Researchers from Lawrence Livermore and UC Santa Cruz, including LLNL scientist Swetha Chandrasekaran, demonstrated 3D-printed graphene aerogel supercapacitors that resulted in record-breaking electric charge storage and “remarkable” energy density. Photo by Julie Russell/LLNL

Life in the fast lane

Three-dimensional printing has catapulted research and development into the fast lane. It enables designers to create prototypes of any shape or geometry with great efficiency, using a variety of processes, materials and types of digital input. It has been used in the manufacturing, medical and industry sectors. It can be used to transform food into shapes, make bikinis, shoes and dresses, automobile parts or even enameled pottery. If you want to keep up with developments in the additive manufacturing market, don’t blink your eyes.

Here is one recent development: Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Lawrence Livermore have reported unprecedented performance results using a new supercapacitor electrode. The team used 3D printing to fabricate electrodes using a printable graphene aerogel, building a porous, 3D scaffold that is loaded with manganese oxide — a commonly used pseudocapacitive material.

The electrode resulted in record-breaking electric charge storage and “remarkable” energy density.