Global Security

Detecting Explosives

Detecting Explosives

Sandia National Laboratories researchers want airports, border checkpoints and others to detect homemade explosives made with hydrogen peroxide without nabbing people whose toothpaste happens to contain peroxide.

That’s part of the challenge faced in developing a portable sensor to detect a common homemade explosive called a FOx (fuel/oxidizer) mixture, made by mixing hydrogen peroxide with fuels, said Chris Brotherton, principal investigator for a Sandia research project on chemiresponsive sensors. The detector must be able to spot hydrogen peroxide in concentrations that don’t also raise suspicions about common peroxide-containing products.

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The Stuff That DREAM Is Made Of

Los Alamos physicist Geoffrey Reeves knows that the space just outside of Earth’s protective atmosphere is a tempestuous, radiation-filled environment that can knock an orbiting satellite dead. So Reeves and a small team developed DREAM: software that gives satellite operators a heads up about the conditions surrounding their spacecraft and, thus, a chance to prepare for the worst of space-stormy weather.

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The Mind's Eye

Mind's Eye

Consider the human brain as a computer. It is an electrical signaling system capable of carrying out mathematical and logical operations. It has short-term and long-term memory. It exchanges inputs and outputs with external devices, like ears and arms. Estimates of human brain performance vary widely because no direct method of comparison to a computer is known, but based on the brain’s hardware and architecture, some experts peg its computing power roughly on par with the world’s fastest supercomputer.

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Understanding Climate Change

Researchers collect sediment cores from a lake in the Brooks Range of Alaska. (Courtesy of Philip Higuera.)

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore are working to better understand climate variation and sharpen the accuracy of predictive models with an LDRD project on “Mapping Patterns of Past Drought in California Late-Holocene Lake Sediments as Model Diagnostics." Principal investigator Susan Zimmerman is developing lake-sediment records of the natural changes in California’s climate, with the focus on tracking the number of droughts through the centuries. The team is taking time slices of California climate for the last 2,000 years to help reconstruct historical patterns. Accurately predicting the timing, amount, and patterns of precipitation is especially critical in California, with its growing population, enormous agricultural industry, and propensity for droughts. In particular, state agencies responsible for meeting future water demands must depend on scientific estimates for precipitation over the next few decades.

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Detecting Pathogens by the Thousands

Scientists from Lawrence Livermore and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, are evaluating LLMDA as a potential tool for diagnosing disease outbreaks in sea lions and harbor seals.

A Livermore bioinformatics team has developed a device that can simultaneously identify thousands of viruses and bacteria within 24 hours. The Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) began as an LDRD project, the “Viral Discovery Platform." In designing the next-generation microarray, the team collaborated with researchers at institutions around the world to create a technology that can identify any sequenced virus and bacterium. The microarray’s checkerboard has several dozen squares for each of the thousands of organisms sequenced to date, so it can simultaneously examine multiple regions from each organism. Crystal Jaing, a co-researcher for the original LDRD project, now leads the current Laboratory research for the microarray, which has great potential for improving processes used by medical professionals, law-enforcement personnel, and product manufacturers and could better prepare the nation when the next outbreak from an unknown pathogen hits.

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RapTOR Being Adapted

Stan Langevin optimizes DNA hybridization conditions to suppress high-abundance human DNA using time-consuming standard benchtop methods. Microfluidic-based normalization in RapTOR will eliminate tedious benchtop protocols combining DNA hybridization and hydroxyapatite chromatography on a single platform. (Photo by Randy Wong).

Finding a collection of slightly different needles in a haystack of human DNA. This slightly inadequate analogy characterizes the problem of discovering novel, heretofore unknown or uncharacterized pathogens in a human blood or tissue sample. With the vast majority of DNA from such a sample being of human origin, Sandia National Laboratories’ RapTOR (Rapid Threat Organism Recognition) LDRD is pursuing an automated method of eliminating or minimizing the effect of this human DNA, in order to use existing molecular biology methods, such as ultrahigh-throughput DNA sequencing (UHTS) to characterize the DNA of these new pathogens. Such pathogens may arise from genetic engineering of existing threat organisms, or like Ebolavirus, when initially found, may be newly discovered pathogenic agents. In any case, using an older technology known as hydroxyapatite chromatography, the RapTOR LDRD has been microfluidically automating a process known as “normalization,” which removes abundant human DNA sequences, so that less numerous DNA of potential pathogens can be sequenced.

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Software Solution for Radioactive Contraband Detection

Working at the intersection of commerce and national security, a team of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists and engineers led by principal investigator James Candy applied its expertise in radiation science and gamma detection to develop the statistical radiation detection system, an innovative software solution that nonexperts can use to rapidly and reliably detect radionuclides. The team, along with ICx® Technologies, Inc., in Arlington, Virginia, has won an R&D 100 Award for the technology and derived support from the LDRD project “Detection, Classification, and Estimation of Radioactive Contraband from Uncertain, Low-Count Measurements."

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Insight into a Deadly Disease

Francisella tularensis proteins

Experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have revealed the pathogenesis of tularemia, or rabbit fever, in host cells, bringing scientists closer to developing a vaccine for this debilitating disease. Tularemia’s virulence and ability to be aerosolized raise concerns that the bacterium could be used as a bioterrorism agent. With funding from Livermore’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program for “Francisella tularensis: Understanding the Host–Pathogen Interaction” (06-ERD-057) and from the National Institutes of Health, immunologist Amy Rasley, in collaboration with scientists at Livermore and several other research institutions across the U.S., has made substantial progress in understanding how the bacterium infects cells and what causes it to be so virulent.

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Multifunctional Optical Coatings

2010 R&D 100 Award Winner

From consumer electronics and photographic lenses to sensors on aircraft and lightweight plastic goggles for troops in the field: optical and electronic thin-film coatings have become an everyday fact of civilian and military life. Until the development of the process honored by this 2010 R&D100 award, thin-film coatings have most often been created by techniques such as metal organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD).

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Nanoparticles and Sensing Applications

This research featured on the cover of the Journal of the American Chemical Society

The development of a full spectral, in-flow Raman instrument created by researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory is a powerful new tool for nanomaterials development. The instrument has uses beyond traditional biological applications of flow cytometry. The capability could have an expanded role in the characterization and development of nanoparticles and sensing applications. In research that appears on the May 5 cover of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a Los Alamos team that includes Steve Doorn of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies; Greg Goddard, John Martin, James Freyer, Steven Grave, and Robb Habbersett of Advanced Measurement Science; and Leif Brown and Christina Brady reports on this new capability.

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Mars-bound LIBS

Roger Wiens

LIBS laser detects anything from bombs to bacteria

Roger Wiens of International, Space and Response said that Lab funding is allowing his team to improve a laser sensing technique that can detect the chemical composition of anything from bombs to bacteria.

Wiens noted on local radio station KRSN 1490 AM on Tuesday that the Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) laser sensing technique can identify the composition of solids, liquids, and even gases by "shooting" a laser at a sample. LIBS detects nearly all elements and can uniquely identify explosives, bacteria, spores, geological samples, or other materials.

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Collaborating for Global Security


Microeconomics, energy supply availability, border security — and communication infrastructure as it interconnects all other critical US infrastructures — these are but a few of the national-security areas impacted by the modeling efforts of National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC). Established by Sandia and Los Alamos in 2000, and currently funded as a joint Sandia/Los Alamos venture by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the center’s roots were nourished by ingenuity and foresight dating back to a spate of LDRD-funded projects in the 1990s.

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Imaging of Nuclear Materials

Active Detection and Imaging of Nuclear Materials with High-Brightness Gamma Rays

This LDRD Strategic Initiative leverages LLNL’s world-leading capabilities in laser science, x-ray source development, and nuclear science to address the challenge of detecting concealed, highly enriched uranium, a countermeasure against nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. The team is developing a novel tunable, ultrahigh-brightness, gamma-ray capability to enable a promising new class of active nuclear interrogation.

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Network Discovery, Characterization and Prediction

Network Discovery, Characterization, and Prediction Grand Challenge

On the surface, the threats to national security appear to manifest in a diversity of forms, and may also appear to be individualized and not intimately connected — the suicide bomber, the cyber-intruder, the illegal weapons salesman. Despite the apparently minimally connected perpetrators, underpinning this loose, dynamic aggregation are networks that support and finance these activities — supply, recruitment, and shipment networks, as well as financial and communications (including computer) networks.

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Intelligent Assembly Systems

Autonomous Intelligent Assembly Systems

Robotic assembly of structures in locations where human life might be at risk or not yet present — in space, on ocean bottoms, in combat zones: such is the ultimate goal of this project, which seeks to develop new algorithms to increase the autonomous functioning of robotic agents in unstructured environments. Even sophisticated robotic systems currently require an at-risk human operator to function; even highbandwidth and GPS navigation is insufficient to accomplish truly effective robot operation, once the robot has stopped moving at its destination. In this project, visual, command-and-control, and communication algorithms are being developed to improve the functioning of both individual and teams of collaborating robots.

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Thinking Telescope

Thinking Telescope

On the night of February 6, 2006, Los Alamos astrophysicist Przemek Wozniak was awakened by a cell-phone call from RAPTOR, the small robotic optical telescope array on Fenton Hill, about 30 miles from Los Alamos in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. RAPTOR had found something strange—a rapidly rising light signal coming from the position of a very short gamma-ray burst detected and located.

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Retrace your steps. It’s a good way to find lost items: your glasses, your keys . . . the TV remote. It can also be a good scientific way to find things. Just ask Paul Johnson.

The Los Alamos geophysicist heads a team that uses time reversal—a technique that relies on the ability of waves to retrace their steps to their source—to find defects inside mechanical parts or to locate the sources of earthquakes deep underground.

Read more: Retrovision


MagViz Detects Liquid Explosives


The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is testing new airport baggage screening technology that differentiates between different types of liquids, gels, and lotions – everything you want to carry on the plane but no longer can. Currently, U.S. travellers must pack toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles, and cosmetics following the “3-1-1 rule,” with containers holding no more than three ounces of fluid sealed in a single one-quart, plastic zip-lock bag. New technology developed by Los Alamos researchers may make the plastic-bag component of travel a distant memory.

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Hear No Evil

Hear No Evil

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) scientist Doug Revelle perfected a method to detect infrasonics—sound waves below the range of human hearing—produced by meteors, volcanoes and man-made explosions.

This program—the only one of its kind in the nation—operates six infrasonic-sensor arrays in western states.

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