LDRD Day highlights technology

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LANL: Scientists explain research that could change the world

By Arin McKenna

The cutting-edge research featured at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) third annual LDRD Day (Laboratory Directed Research and Development) had scientists animated, investors speculating and at least one science fiction writer’s imagination running wild. As one of the 251 attendees put it, it was like a Science Day for adults.

The event – Tuesday at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino – highlighted over 40 of LDRD’s 250 projects. The projects were summarized in poster form, with scientists on hand to elaborate on their work. Each poster addressed four questions: What is the challenge? What is our innovation? What have we learned so far? Why is this important to our nation?

The last question may be the most critical in an era which focuses on short-term returns rather than long-term goals. This year’s theme was “Science for a Competitive Nation.” The necessity of investing in research that may, on the surface, appear to have no applicable uses or economic viability was one of the issues raised by the event’s keynote speakers.

“Innovation and creativity are where things start. Creativity is where you use your mind to create something out of nothing, and innovation is the movement of those creations into something tangible and of value,” said Program Director William Priedhorsky in his keynote address. “We keep asking ourselves everyday in the LDRD program, are we stretching enough? Are we taking on enough high risk/high reward projects? We’re building the lab of 20 years from now – it’s not a tomorrow thing.”

Priedhorsky raised the question, “What if the space age had never happened?” Cable news, today’s power grid, GPS navigation, satellite phones and cell phones are all possible because of space exploration, which even today many consider to be a waste of the government’s money.

More than six percent of the lab’s budget is dedicated to LDRD, which pursues high risk projects with the potential for high rewards, but also with a high risk of failure. Priedhorsky noted that LANL originated with just such a project. There was no guarantee of success when the United States Government funded the Manhattan Project.

LDRD Day projects fell into four categories: energy security, global security, nuclear security and scientific discovery. The research ranged from how to design superconductors for practical applications to developing new technologies for measuring “extreme events” like Black Holes to how video game technology is being applied to nuclear physics. The scientists and their assistants were adept at explaining their projects in terms even a layperson could understand.

Susan Seestrom, LANL associate director for Experimental Physical Sciences gave the opening address and award-winning LANL researcher Nathan McDowell closed the day discussing his global research into how climate change is affecting vegetation. Two of the keynote speakers from the investment community – Clinton Bybee, co-founder and managing director of ARCH Venture Partners and John Chavez, president, of New Mexico Angels – highlighted the commercial potential of some of these projects.

“Which one of those technologies out there is going to make an impact on our society? The research going on today will have a meaningful impact on our lives tomorrow,” Chavez said. “Not every one of these technologies here today will go out to the commercial world. I would suggest that two or three of the technologies here today will have an impact in the next four to seven years.”

Priedhorsky noted that economists have given LDRD a 30 percent annual rate of return on investment. Representatives of the lab’s Technology Transfer Division were available to speak with investors.

One of the two awards was for Best Market potential, judged by Bybee, Chavez and David Pesiri of the Technology Transfer Division. That award went to Andrew Bradbury and his team for “Stabilizing Cellulases Using an Evolutionary Approach.” Bradbury’s research is focused on how to stabilize the cellulases used in producing biofuel, which has the potential to drastically reduce biofuel costs. Bradbury works in the Advanced Measurement Science group in the Bioscience Division.

The other award was a People’s choice award, voted on by attendees. That went to “Discovering How the Brain Sees,” the work of Luis Bettencourt from the Applied Mathematics and Plasma Physics group in the Theoretical Division. The Roadrunner supercomputer has enough computing power for scientists like Bettencourt to replicate the way the brain sees. Computers have not had the capacity to emulate sight, which has been one of the key limitations in developing advanced technologies like robots. Bettencourt and his team believe that technological breakthroughs will make the work they are doing available commercially within three to five years.

Priedhorsky is a firm believer in the relevance of the work his division engages in.