Feb. 3, 2023
From sci-fi to reality
Nuclear fusion's potential for clean, limitless energy sounds like sci-fi, but it's slowly becoming reality.
Nuclear energy has had something of a bad reputation in the past. Repairing the image of this energy source has been an uphill battle, but recent achievements of its more elusive, yet more powerful, sibling — nuclear fusion — could change that. If achieved, it could provide humanity with an effectively limitless and clean source of energy by replicating the kind of reactions that take place inside stars and the sun.
In December 2022, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced that its National Ignition Facility had achieved a new milestone toward achieving nuclear fusion by generating more power (more than 3 megajoules, or 1 megajoule shy of a kilogram of TNT being detonated) than they had initially put in using a process called inertial confinement.
This result may sound meager for an energy source that is modeled after the core of burning stars, but for scientists who have been chasing this science for decades like LLNL’s Omar Hurricane, chief scientist of the fusion program behind this result, it’s proof that their efforts may finally be paying off.
“[T]he December result were milestones that demonstrate that there is no physics obstacle standing in the way of fusion power generation,” Hurricane said. “I like to describe our results as an ‘existence proof.’”
A whole different animal
A new software developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and known as Skywing, provides domain scientists working to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure with a high-reliability, real-time software platform for collaborative autonomy applications.
The U.S. modern critical infrastructure — from the electrical grid that sends power to homes to the pipelines that deliver water and natural gas and the railways and roadways we travel — is full of digitized components. In a power grid, this includes distributed energy resources (DERs) such as smart meters, solar inverters, power-quality sensors and protection devices that are geographically spread out, programmable and network connected.These networks, as currently designed, typically rely on a single control center for analysis and decision making.
“Unfortunately, control centers offer a cybersecurity single point of failure,” said LLNL computational mathematician Colin Ponce. “We need to design our systems so that if the control center or one of the devices is hacked and infiltrated in a cyberattack, the entire system doesn’t shut down or give attackers complete control over our critical infrastructure.”
To defend against cyber-attacks and harden the system, LLNL multidisciplinary teams of mathematicians, systems analysts, power engineers, cybersecurity experts and computational scientists have turned to collaborative autonomy — a new class of computational techniques that teach networked devices how to self-organize into a collective whole.
You light up my life
Humans have a strange relationship with comets. In the past they were seen as harbingers of terrible things to come, and today we still feature them in films that destroy cities and threaten humanity. But this persistent notion of comets as harbingers of destruction is not the whole picture. Numerous lines of scientific research support the theory that comets played a crucial role in the origin of life on Earth.
In our planet’s distant past, these violent collisions may have been the sources of even more fascinating chemistry.
Nir Goldman of Lawrence Livermore and collaborators are studying what reactions might have occurred in the heart of a comet as it impacted Earth. “Comets contain a lot of raw material that could be useful for prebiotic chemistry — the chemistry of the building blocks of life — and the impact contains a lot of energy,” Goldman said.
This energy can drive chemical changes. “Prebiotic materials, such as amino acids, have fairly high energetic barriers to their formation. When things go right, this resource gets just enough energy to push it over those barriers. You start with very simple things and then the effect event takes it a notch higher in complexity.”
Computer models showed that several biologically significant materials can be formed in the turmoil of a comet impact.
“We’re seeing things like amino acid precursors, amino acids and aromatic compounds like carbon ring structures, which are very stable rings of carbon molecules,” Goldman said.
A grand reopening
Lawrence Livermore’s Discovery Center reopened to visitors this week after nearly three years of closure.
The Discovery Center’s reopening features facility renovations and host a variety of new exhibits related to the center’s research and history, with a particular aim toward children.
Visitors are able to walk through an updated model of the target chamber of the National Ignition Facility, learn about the Lab’s role in combating COVID-19 and an exhibit on the Lab’s astronomical discoveries.
The Discovery Center is open Monday through Friday from noon to 4 p.m. See here for more information.
Whip it good
Aerosols are tiny particles that can have a significant impact on Earth’s climate and human health.
For example, these microdroplets can reflect incoming sunlight back to outer space, helping to cool a warming planet. Or they can be used to administer drugs to the lungs, especially to treat respiratory ailments.
The ability to more precisely control how aerosols move is critically important to pharmaceutical sciences and climate research. Aerosol science also is a key aspect of many industries, everything from automobiles to food processing. Scientists have published a study describing a breakthrough device — a new whipping jet aerosol sprayer — that is relatively inexpensive to build and operate.
“We have created a unique, steady-state, gas-focused whipping jet that does not use electricity,” said lead author Sankar Raju Narayanasamy, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“This development is a significant feat that can have a wide range of applications,” Narayanasamy said.