Established in 1943, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico was site Y of the Manhattan Project for a single purpose: to design and build an atomic bomb, which took just 27 months. The Los Alamos of today has a heightened focus on intellectual freedom, scientific excellence, and national service.

As a Federally Funded Research and Development Center, LANL aligns its strategic plan with priorities set by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). As the senior laboratory in the DOE system, LANL executes work in all of DOE's missions — national security, science, energy, and environmental management. In addition, LANL performs work for the Department of Defense (DOD), Intelligence Community (IC), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), among others. As a result, the lab's strategy reflects U.S. priorities spanning nuclear security, intelligence, defense, emergency response, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, energy security, emerging threats, and environmental management.

LANL's RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response) telescope captures the first color cinematography of nature's largest explosions: gamma-ray bursts. (Photo by LeRoy Sanchez)

LANL focuses on integrating research and development solutions to achieve the maximum impact on strategic national security priorities. In addition, through partnerships across government agencies, laboratories, universities, and industry, LANL delivers the best possible science and technology.

As a foundation, LANL conducts fundamental science in areas such as high-performance computing, dynamic and energetic materials, superconductivity, advanced materials, bioin-formatics, theoretical and computational biology, chemistry, earth and environmental science, alternative energy systems, and engineering sciences and application.

Science Pillars

LANL established Science Pillars under four main themes to bring together a diverse array of scientific capabilities and expertise.

Information, Science and Technology (IS&T) – Modern computational science (e.g., Monte Carlo methods) has its roots in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Today, a LANL strength continues to be computational physics research, methods development, and applications that run on the world's most powerful computers to help solve the nation's most urgent needs. Advances in theory, algorithms, and the exponential growth of high-performance computing help to accelerate technology in the areas of data science at scale, computational co-design, and complex networks.

Materials for the Future – The lab is transitioning from observing and exploiting the properties of materials to a science-based capability that creates materials with properties optimized for specific functions. LANL focuses on discovery science and engineering required to establish design principles, synthesis pathways, and manufacturing processes that control functionality in materials relevant to the lab's missions.

Nuclear and Particle Futures – Los Alamos is the premier lab in the United States for all-things nuclear, with capabilities in critical assembly work, and extensive capabilities in nuclear experiment, theory, and simulation.

Science of Signatures (SoS) – Signatures are the unique elements that allow threats to be located within their environments and described (e.g., the pattern variation that distinguishes spinach from poison ivy). LANL work in signatures extends from nuclear and radiological, to chemical and materials, biological, energy, climate, and space signatures.

Within the Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program, LANL scientists use the CAVE virtual environment to understand and explore their data. Here, a user interactively assembles a mechanical joint. The glasses and handheld wand are motion-tracked to allow free movement of objects within the virtual world. (Photo by LeRoy Sanchez)

Recent Breakthroughs

One of the gravest threats the United States, and its allies, faces is the acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction by terrorists or rogue nations. LANL provides technologies and expertise that systematically strengthen the capability to detect and interdict illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials across international borders. Deployment of radiation detection instrumentation at border crossings, rail crossings, airports, and post offices is part of this effort.

Three LANL technologies are aboard the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover. Los Alamos radioisotope batteries are providing power and heat to Curiosity, and are driving the vehicle's ten scientific instruments. One technology, known as ChemCam, is mounted on the rover's mast, and uses extremely powerful pulses of light to vaporize pinhead-sized areas of the Martian surface to provide scientists with crucial information about the composition of Mars surface materials. CheMin uses X-ray diffraction to determine the composition of samples that are collected and dropped into a funnel on the rover.

Los Alamos continues to employ Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) technologies to convert weapons-grade plutonium to blended mixed oxides for use in commercial nuclear power reactors.

Jamming is the physical process by which granular materials, glasses, foams, and other complex fluids become rigid with increasing density. Simulations of jammed systems study particle configurations leading to jamming in both static systems and systems under shear — a motion similar to what happens during an earthquake. LANL scientists use resonant sound waves to measure the effect. Here, tightly packed disks subjected to an earthquake-like movement display separate fast- and slow-moving regions, and form a net of load-bearing contacts.

The lab successfully tested a new high-current electron injector, a device that can be scaled up to produce the electrons needed to build a high-power free-electron laser prototype for the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Operating at the speed of light, the free-electron laser will protect the U.S. Navy's fleet of the future by defeating multiple incoming missiles in different maritime environments with a high-power beam of wavelengthtunable light.

LANL is developing a miniature, tissue-engineered, artificial lung that mimics the response of the human lung to drugs, toxins, and other agents. Nicknamed “PuLMo” for Pulmonary Lung Model, the device consists of two major parts — the bronchiolar unit and the alveolar unit — just like the human lung. The units are primarily made from various polymers and are connected by a microfluidic “circuit board” that manages fluid and airflow. The most exciting application of PuLMo is a potentially revolutionary improvement in the reliability of drug-toxicity assessments and the prediction of new pharmaceutical success in humans. PuLMo may also be designed to mimic lung disease conditions, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and asthma, and may be used to study lung airflow dynamics to better understand the mechanisms of toxins and drug delivery, and the effects of smoking — particularly the less-understood effects of e-cigarettes.

A LANL researcher removes the laser safety plug on the ChemCam Mast Unit, part of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. (Photo by LeRoy Sanchez)

MiniMAX is a compact, completely self-contained, battery-operated, portable X-ray imaging system. At just less than 5 pounds, MiniMAX outperforms X-ray systems that weigh between 30 and 500 pounds and cost three to six times as much. The explosives-related application for MiniMAX is homeland security; in particular, the postal inspection of suspicious packages and explosive ordnance disposal.

Developed by LANL, MOXIE is the world's fastest camera that enables researchers to “see” into the unseen by imaging transient events from start to finish. The principal application for MOXIE is to create X-ray movies of mock detonations used to verify computer models — an essential component of nuclear weapon certification without nuclear testing. Other applications include studying the physical properties of materials and performing ballistic studies.

The KIVA family of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software predicts complex fuel and air flows, as well as ignition, combustion, and pollutant-formation processes in engines. The KIVA models have been used to understand combustion chemistry processes, such as auto-ignition of fuels, and to optimize diesel engines for high efficiency and low emissions. Recently, LANL researchers developed KIVA-4mpi, a parallel version of KIVA-4. This software also solves chemically reacting, turbulent, multiphase viscous flows, but does this on multiple computer processors with a distributed computational domain (grid).

Science Programs

The miniature QkarD transmitter communicates with a trusted authority to generate random cryptographic keys to encode and decode information.

As part of the Advanced Scientific Computing Research area, LANL discovers, develops, and deploys computational and networking capabilities to analyze, model, simulate, and predict complex phenomena important to the Department of Energy.

Supporting research to understand, predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at the electronic, atomic and molecular levels, Los Alamos leads research at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT). The center focuses on exploring the path from scientific discovery to the integration of nanostructures into the micro and macro worlds. This path involves experimental and theoretical exploration of behavior, understanding new performance regimes and concepts, testing designs, and integrating nanoscale materials and structures. CINT focus areas are nanophotonics and nanoelectronics, complex functional nanomaterials, nanomechanics, and the nanoscale/ bio/microscale interfaces.

LANL's Biological and Environmental Research program seeks to understand how genomic information is translated to functional capabilities, and the roles of Earth's biogeochemical systems so climate change can be predicted decades or centuries into the future. The program also involves conducting research into sustainable biofuel production, improved carbon storage, and climate driven by a foundation of scientific knowledge and inquiry in atmospheric chemistry and physics, ecology, biology, and biogeochemistry.

Technology Transfer

The primary function of LANL's licensing program is to move Los Alamos technology to the marketplace for the benefit of the U.S. economy. LANL intellectual property can be licensed for commercial use or research applications.

For information on technologies available for licensing, visit here , or contact the Licensing Team at LANL's Richard P. Feynman Center for Innovation at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 505-665-9090.


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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