Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Los Alamos National Laboratory

on December 19, 2013 at 5:00 PM


This article is part of the series highlighting the “Top Things You Didn’t Know About…” Be sure to check back for more entries soon.

Known only as site Y when it opened in 1943, Los Alamos National Laboratory had just one original mission: to build an atomic bomb. In the years since, the Lab’s mission has expanded to include a range of energy security, nonproliferation and other scientific research, though national security science remains core to the Lab’s mission. Over the years, the Lab has played host to some of history’s most storied personalities, from General Leslie Groves to J. Robert Oppenheimer. Today, the Lab has 10,312 employees — scientists, engineers, researchers, students and support staff conducting cutting-edge research in support of the Energy Department’s national security mission.

10. Los Alamos National Laboratory is located on 36 square miles of Energy Department-owned property and is comprised of more than 2,000 individual facilities, including 47 technical areas with 8 million square feet under roof. The Lab includes 1,280 buildings, 268 miles of roads, 34 miles of electrical lines, 63 miles of gas lines and a power plant.

9. In 1995, former Los Alamos scientist Fred Reines was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the detection of the neutrino, an electrically neutral subatomic particle. Reines and fellow scientist Clyde Cowan, Jr. proved the existence of the neutrino during a series of experiments conducted at Los Alamos National Lab between 1953 and 1956.

8. In the 1960s, Los Alamos physicist Mack Fulwyler invented the cell sorter, a device to isolate different types of cells. The invention, still a vital piece of equipment in biological labs today, operates in a fashion similar to an ink-jet printer, redirecting a flow of tiny cell-containing droplets. With this technology, scientists are able to study the biochemistry underlying many diseases, including cancer and AIDS.

7. Fifty years ago, Los Alamos technology lifted off into space as part of an effort to ensure that world powers were abiding by the newly signed Limited Test Ban Treaty — a pledge by the United States, the former Soviet Union and the United Kingdom to refrain from testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater or in space. With the launch of the first pair of Vela — an abbreviated version of Velador, a colloquial New Mexican word for “night watchman” — satellites in 1963, a dangerous era of accelerated atmospheric and space-based nuclear weapons testing by the United States and the Soviet Union subsided, thanks in part to this collaboration between Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories.

6. In 2012, the discovery of molecular oxygen ions in the upper-most atmosphere of Dione, one of the 62 known moons orbiting Saturn, was announced by Los Alamos National Lab scientists and an international research team. The discovery was made possible by instruments aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which was launched in 1997. The scientists described the concentration of oxygen in Dione’s atmosphere as roughly similar to what one would find in Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of about 300 miles. Two Los Alamos-built instruments are onboard Cassini, an ion-beam spectrometer and ion-mass spectrometer, which are used to determine the composition of various materials.

5. In 2013, Los Alamos National Lab won an R&D 100 award, an “Oscar of Innovation,” for the invention of the MiniMax, a battery powered, digital x-ray imaging system that is completely self-contained, lightweight, compact and portable. The device could be used for postal inspection of suspicious packages, in disaster relief (to triage broken bones or confirm dental X-rays) and for field and veterinary medicine. MiniMax was one of four 2013 R&D 100 award winners from the Lab, and one of 129 the Lab has received since it first started competing in 1978.

4. In November 2013, Los Alamos scientists announced the development of a new type of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology called MagRay that is able to quickly and accurately distinguish between liquids that visually appear identical — providing a potential breakthrough for screening liquids at airport security. The technology works by examining where a liquid lies in a rubric utilizing MRI, proton content and X-ray density. The new technology, for instance, is able to distinguish between white wine and nitromethane, which could be used to make an explosive.

3. Los Alamos National Lab’s Roadrunner was the first supercomputer in the world that was able to sustain more than one quadrillion floating point operations, or calculations, per second. During it’s initial phase of operation, Roadrunner was used to model the early universe, to model materials under extreme conditions and to create the largest HIV evolutionary tree. Later, Roadrunner was used for simulations in support of the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

2. In March 2012, scientists at Los Alamos National Lab’s Pulsed Field Facility set a world record by achieving a 100.75 tesla magnetic pulse, about 2 million times more powerful than the Earth’s magnetic field. The 100 tesla multi-shot magnet, called such because it can be used over and over again without being destroyed by the force of the magnetic field it creates, produces the most powerful non-destructive magnetic field in the world.

1. Scientists at Los Alamos National Lab, in collaboration with the French space institute, IRAP, developed the ChemCam, one of 10 scientific instruments onboard the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, which is currently exploring Gale Crater on Mars. The ChemCaminstrument is designed for two primary purposes: to determine the composition of rocks and soils, and to identify rocks and soils for analysis by other instruments on board the rover. The instrument works by first firing a series of laser pulses at a target (rock or soil) and then using a built-in telescope to capture the flashes. Finally, an onboard spectrometer “reads” the light and identifies the different types of atoms within the target (where different elements have a different “fingerprint”). When ChemCam fires its powerful laser pulse, it briefly focuses the energy of a million light bulbs onto an area the size of a pinhead. The laser blast can vaporize part of its target from up to 23 feet away. Recently, the ChemCam fired it’s 100,000th laser pulse on Mars.