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.

Sept. 6, 2019

Sandy Weill (seated left) and Energy Secretary Rick Perry (seated right) signed the memorandum of understanding that paves the way for national laboratories, universities and private companies to collaborate on advancing research in artificial intelligence.

Nothing artificial about new biomedical partnership

The Department of Energy and the Weill Family Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding for a new public-private partnership, which will use the agency’s artificial intelligence capabilities for biomedical research.

Former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill and Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that the partnership aims to improve the diagnosis of brain diseases and neurological disorders, which would result in more effective treatment.

“As one looks at science and the development of new science, especially AI and computing, you really need to have partners to make things work.” Weill said. “It’s too expensive for anybody to try to do it by themselves.”

The partnership between the federal government and the Weill Family Foundation involves Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley and Argonne national laboratories, and was announced during a roundtable on DOE-fueled artificial intelligence at Lawrence Livermore.

The Department of Energy is currently home to the fastest supercomputers in the world.

Nitrate adsorbed into carbon slit pores (black). Researchers have developed a technology that can remove nitrate from water selectively, preserving beneficial minerals and dramatically reducing the cost of treatment compared with other purification methods. Image by Ryan Chen/LLNL.

Getting fresh

Nitrate is a troublesome groundwater contaminant that is mainly caused by fertilizer runoff on farmlands. Many wells in agricultural regions exceed the U.S. EPA limit for nitrate in drinking water, and without an economical treatment option the water is unfit for potable use.

But Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and Stanford University researchers have developed a technology that can remove nitrate from water selectively, preserving beneficial minerals and dramatically reducing the cost of treatment compared with other purification methods, such as reverse osmosis.

“Our technology can scale from under-sink to municipal-plant size and will increase freshwater availability in under-resourced areas,” said LLNL material scientist Patrick Campbell.

The contamination of water resources with nitrate is a growing and significant problem, especially in agricultural regions. Realizing this, the team used capacitive deionization electrodes made from ultramicroporous carbon with less than one nanometer-size pores that are perfect for removing nitrate molecules.

In-situ uranium isotopic imaging by NanoSIMS can provide insights into the process history and origin of nuclear fuel pellet materials in support of nuclear forensics examinations. Image by Veronica Chen/LLNL.

Good things come in small packages

Until recently, the analysis and identification of nuclear fuel pellets in nuclear forensics investigations have been mainly focused on macroscopic characteristics, such as fuel pellet dimensions, uranium enrichment and other reactor-specific features.

But Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists are going a step further by going down to the microscale to study the diverse characteristics of nuclear fuel pellets that could improve nuclear forensic analysis by determining more effectively where the material came from and how it was made.

Uranium dioxide is the most commonly used fuel type in nuclear reactors worldwide, with fuel fabrication facilities producing hundreds of uranium pellets per minute. Illicit trafficking of uranium dioxide fuel pellets is a reoccurring phenomenon. The majority of confirmed cases of trafficking of nuclear materials that were reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency Incident and Trafficking Database involved low-grade nuclear materials (i.e., natural uranium, depleted uranium and low enriched uranium), often in the form of reactor fuel pellets.

These cases are indicative of gaps in the control and security of certain nuclear material and nuclear facilities. Each fuel manufacturer applies a somewhat different set of technological processes to the material, which can help trace the material back to the originating fuel fabrication facility.

"In the past, the analysis of fuel pellets and their role in a nuclear forensics investigation has mostly focused on sample characteristics where researchers look at average enrichment, pellet dimensions and other macroscale features," said LLNL chemist Ruth Kips. "We decided to dive deeper into the pellets to figure out what was happening at an even smaller scale."

New research by LLNL shows that Jupiter’s stripes, caused by the planet’s zonal winds, only descend to 3,000 kilometers in the atmosphere. Image courtesy of NASA.

Jupiter shows its true colors

There's a reason why Jupiter's stripes are only skin deep.

It turns out that the planet's zonal winds — the alternating east-west jet streams seen in photographs as colorful stripes — only descend to 3,000 kilometers in the atmosphere.

Magnetic fields can make fluids that conduct electricity (like Jupiter's atmosphere) behave more like honey than water. Deeper into the planet, where the pressure is higher, the atmosphere becomes more conducting and is more strongly influenced by the planetary magnetic field. It's also the same place where the stripes stop.

"The magnetically enhanced viscosity could be strong enough to be the culprit that terminates the winds at depths below 3,000 km," said Jeff Parker, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s first exascale supercomputer, “El Capitan,” will have a peak performance of more than 1.5 exaflops (1.5 quintillion calculations per second) and an anticipated delivery in late 2022.

El Capitan on fast track

Supercomputer maker Cray has been tapped to develop a new $600 million system for the U.S. Department of Energy, capable of conducting 3D simulations at unprecedented speeds to better assess and maintain the country’s nuclear weapons capability.

The new system, dubbed “El Capitan,” will be an “exascale” supercomputer, referring to systems that can conduct at least one quintillion (a billion billion) calculations per second, on a level believed to be capable of simulating the human brain. El Capitan, housed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will actually be capable of 1.5 quintillion calculations per second, enabling advanced artificial intelligence and modeling capabilities.

El Capitan will be more than seven times faster than the world’s current top supercomputer, and more powerful than the top 100 fastest systems in the world combined. Government officials say scientists need these computing capabilities to ensure that U.S. weapons remain a deterrent in the absence of underground nuclear testing, which has been under a national moratorium since 1992.