Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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Chris Spadaccini

Chris Spadaccini

Materials Engineering Division Leader

A Legacy of Innovation

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory takes pride in being known as the “big ideas” laboratory, a tagline reflecting the earliest aspirations of its founders. For more than 70 years, Livermore staff have thought outside the box to keep the nation and world secure. Yet, even within such an innovative environment, aversion to risk creeps in and restrains powerful and transformative ideas. Fear of failure and the ramifications of unachieved goals exert influence. Rather than embrace risk to achieve great benefit, staff hesitate to drive disruptive research. However, with vastly more capable experimental and computational tools arriving year after year to accelerate the Laboratory’s mission, Livermore is ripe for more risk-taking research to achieve high-reward advances in science and technology.

Venture capitalists in the private sector and government organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) foster a risk-taking culture in research and development. Their high-risk–high-reward outlook requires a high tolerance for failure. That outlook has cleared the path for groundbreaking advances such as the internet, GPS, drones, and the creation of technology giants in California’s Silicon Valley.

In 2019, Lawrence Livermore set out to inject a similar spirit of risk-taking into its Laboratory Directed Researchand Development (LDRD) Program by initiating the LDRD Disruptive Research (DR) pilot program. All LDRD Program projects carry inherent risk of failure. Many, however, are designed to achieve important, yet incremental, advances rather than revolutionary breakthroughs. Principal investigators often incorporate risk mitigation and engage peers in proposal review. In contrast, the DR Program intentionally selected only high- risk–high-reward ideas and subsequently manages them toward aggressive goals and project-end criteria.

The feature article describes a curated selection of DR Program projects. In one project, a team fabricated and tested a new cooling concept for hypersonic vehicles that utilizes additive manufacturing of ultra-high-temperature materials and a multiscale internal architecture for transpiration cooling. By pairing ultracapacitors with a unique laser gain media, another highlighted project demonstrated 120 joules of output energy and could ultimately lead to bench-sized laser configurations rather than building-sized facilities. The first DR project tranche also included an attempt to develop a new optoelectronic device that, if successful, could have increased data transfer rates to satellites by orders of magnitude.

Representing the latest instantiation of the DR Program are two projects brimming with exciting innovation activities. One team works toward developing an iron redox flow battery technology with the potential to provide inexpensive, durable, large-scale energy storage for the electrical grid. In another similarly disruptive and newly funded project, researchers seek to revolutionize industrial fertilizer manufacturing and utilization to radically reduce the massive carbon output of current practices. Projects in the DR category have, overall, shown significant successes.

Continuing the thread of bold innovation and outcomes, a series of research highlights describes the Laboratory’s three 2022 R&D 100 Award winners and one past winner. Each year, R&D World magazine recognizes its top 100 new technologies with an R&D 100 Award. Livermore’s 2022 award recipients developed a direct ink writing process to 3D-print complex optical-quality glass objects, invented feedstock materials with functional properties for additively manufacturing energy storage and other devices, and designed gratings to tolerate the petawatt-level laser operations required for new discoveries in astrophysics and quantum physics, among other fields. Winning a 2013 R&D 100 Award set one Laboratory technology—DNATrax— onto a commercial path starting with ensuring safety from hazardous indoor air conditions to its current application by the company SafeTraces for indoor air quality improvements.

None of the innovations presented in this issue of Science & Technology Review would exist in an institution operating with only an eye to the past. The Laboratory’s goal is to foster the culture of risk-taking demonstrated by DR Program projects and new, award-winning technologies. Spreading a high-risk–high- reward outlook to other categories in the LDRD Program portfolio and throughout the Laboratory will ultimately catalyze the next generation of great Lawrence Livermore breakthroughs.