LANL rounds out top five science stories

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Second of a two-part series

DOE, NASA team demonstrates simple fission reactor prototype (DUFF)

A team of researchers recently demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site’s Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions experiment produced 24 watts of electricity. Engineers from Los Alamos, the NASA Glenn Research Center and National Security Technologies LLC conducted the experiment.

Heat-pipe technology — a sealed tube with an internal fluid that can efficiently transfer heat produced by a reactor with no moving parts — was invented at Los Alamos in 1963. Using heat pipes in tandem with the simple, closed-loop technology of Stirling engines allowed for creation of a reliable electric power supply that can be adapted for space applications.

DUFF is the first demonstration of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the United States since 1965. The experiment was taken from concept to completion in six months for less than $1 million, and was made possible through Los Alamos’s Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Program, which is funded by a small percentage of the Laboratory’s overall budget to invest in new or cutting-edge research.

DARHT successes for stockpile stewardship

The Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility conducted five landmark experiments in 2012 in support of stockpile stewardship and life extension programs.

Most notable were experiments at DARHT and Laboratory firing sites that demonstrated a creative new potential pathway toward replacing conventional high explosives in the current U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile with much more desirable insensitive high explosive.

“This work has the potential to enable future pit reuse options,” said Principal Associate Director for Weapons Programs Bret Knapp. “This also has major national security implications and could help realize very significant cost savings as the U.S. nuclear deterrent ages.”

Remote probes investigate space and provide nuclear detection monitoring

An international research team, including Los Alamos scientists, discovered molecular oxygen ions in the upper-most atmosphere of Dione, one of 62 known moons orbiting Saturn. The instruments aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft enabled the research.

These observations are definitive examples of a process by which a lot of oxygen can be produced in icy celestial bodies that are bombarded by charged particles or photons from the Sun or whatever light source happens to be nearby.

Perhaps even more exciting is the possibility that on a moon with subsurface water, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa, molecular oxygen could combine with carbon in subsurface lakes to form the building blocks of life.

Los Alamos scientists helped develop the special cameras used by the Interstellar Boundary Explorer spacecraft to sample interstellar atoms — raw material for the formation of new stars, planets and even human beings. IBEX directly sampled material carried from outside our solar system across the galaxy by solar and stellar winds.

Luján Neutron Scattering Center enables understanding of enzyme structure and function

The Los Alamos Luján Center’s Protein Crystallography Station forms the core of a capability for joint neutron and X-ray macromolecular structure and function determination. Neutron crystallography is a technique for locating hydrogen atoms that can be hard to detect using X-rays. The PCS provides unique information about hydrogen’s involvement in the function of biological macromolecules. This information is needed to understand the details of enzyme mechanism, drug binding, or protein hydration and dynamics.

First NMR of plutonium-239

Los Alamos and Japanese scientists detected the unique Nuclear Magnetic Resonance signature of Pu-239. Scientists have sought the Pu-239 NMR signal for more than 50 years. This signal could help decipher the complex atomic-scale electronic properties of the element. These properties have a decisive role in the metallurgy and chemical reactivity of Pu alloys and compounds. The discovery could revolutionize the understanding of Pu solid-state physics, chemistry, biology and materials science.