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This issue of Science & Technology Review looks to the past and the future—in both our scientific discoveries and the Laboratory’s extraordinary science and technology (S&T) research capabilities. By applying these capabilities, Laboratory scientists have made significant discoveries about the origins of the solar system and life on Earth; continue to advance nuclear weapons S&T in support of stockpile modernization; and strive for disruptive breakthroughs important to our national security missions.
The feature article, Planetary Research: Exploring Our Past and Future, is presented in four short pieces. It delves into facets of planetary and life sciences to reconstruct the past. Lawrence Livermore researchers are exploring an unexpected pathway to the organic precursors of early biomolecules and life—the bombardment of primordial Earth from comets and meteorites. They use Livermore’s high-performance computers to simulate the chemistry that takes place in such collisions. Geochemists at the Laboratory are at the forefront of efforts to “discover” the evolution of our solar system and its planets, moons, and asteroids. By studying the isotopic signatures of radioactive isotopes in extraterrestrial rocky samples, they have reconstructed the sequence and timing of events in the solar system and dated the age of the Moon. Another team developed compact gamma-ray detectors that have orbited Mercury and will fly to the Psyche-16 asteroid to gain insights into the cores of the solar system’s inner planets. In addition, a research team examined materials science issues that future space explorers will face.
These research efforts build on and enhance S&T expertise and tools that are vital to our national security missions. The high-performance computing capabilities required for exobiology simulations are the foundation of stockpile stewardship. Radiochemistry expertise is needed for assessing nuclear device performance and for nuclear incident response. Gamma-ray detectors are used to locate radioactive materials at shipping ports and border crossings and for nuclear safeguard applications. All mission areas at the Laboratory rely on materials science expertise.
Three decades of innovation at the Laboratory’s Energetic Materials Center (EMC) are celebrated in the highlight, Three Decades of Explosive Innovation. EMC scientists provide critical expertise and cutting-edge research in support of the nuclear deterrent and keeping the nation safe from emerging explosives and nuclear proliferation. As the country’s leading repository of energetic-materials expertise, EMC has been responsible for many landmark S&T developments and faces significant future challenges supporting the nation’s strategic modernization program. The Laboratory leads the charge to develop means to remanufacture an insensitive high explosive not in production since the early 1990s and has developed a novel new explosive for use in stockpile modernization.
We look to address future national needs and explore S&T possibilities through the Department of Energy’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program. At the Laboratory, we created a Disruptive Research projects category within LDRD to support the pursuit of exceptionally innovative ideas with the potential to achieve mission-critical, transformational results. Three of the nine “out-of-the-box” initial projects are discussed in the highlight, Embracing Risk for Transformational Results. A team of scientists has developed and tested a deep-learning algorithm to derive a small model—a mathematical equation—from larger models to make predictions. A second project aims to develop methods for performing complex nuclear calculations on a prototype quantum computer. Yet another team is striving to significantly increase laser power and intensity using plasma rather than solid optics as the amplifying medium.
All these remarkable projects are being carried out under COVID-19 pandemic conditions. The third highlight, Embracing Risk for Transformational Results, discusses how we are enforcing a top priority, protecting employees’ health, while pursuing “Science and Technology on a Mission” at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.