From battling COVID-19 and cancer to searching for signs of ancient life on Mars, see Los Alamos’ top stories from 2021

It was a heckuva year — and we have the great science stories to prove it

December 22, 2021


Despite the year's many challenges (and, in some cases, because of them), there were some incredible scientific and technological innovations out of Los Alamos in 2021. Here's a look back at just a few of them.

Mission to Mars!

Perseverance rover takes New Mexico to Mars
When NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18, a bit of New Mexico landed along with it, thanks to work done at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Watch this video to learn about the rover’s first two days on Mars.

New research shows that Mars did not dry up all at once
While attention has been focused on the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars last month, its predecessor Curiosity continues to explore the base of Mount Sharp on the Red Planet and is still making discoveries. Research published in the journal "Geology" shows that Mars had drier and wetter eras before drying up completely about 3 billion years ago.

First results from Perseverance mission show evidence of flash floods on Mars
New images from the Perseverance mission show evidence of delta and flood deposits in Jezero Crater on Mars, indicating that there were massive flash floods as well as periods of stability on the Red Planet. The deltas are an ideal place to search for signs of ancient life.

VIDEO: What does music sound like on Mars
The atmosphere is different on Mars, which means that sound travels differently. Watch this video to hear what music sounds like on Mars versus Earth!

Battling COVID-19

Vaccine development software shows promise in influenza effort, could help defeat coronavirus
A novel computer algorithm that could create a broadly reactive influenza vaccine for swine flu also offers a path toward a pan-influenza vaccine and possibly a pan-coronavirus vaccine as well, according to a new paper published in "Nature Communications."

Simulations reveal how dominant SARS-CoV-2 strain binds to host, succumbs to antibodies
Large-scale supercomputer simulations at the atomic level show that the dominant G form variant of the COVID-19-causing virus is more infectious partly because of its greater ability to readily bind to its target host receptor in the body, compared to other variants. These research results from a Los Alamos National Laboratory–led team illuminate the mechanism of both infection by the G form and antibody resistance against it, which could help in future vaccine development. Watch this video to learn more.

NEWS STORY: Forecasting the spread of COVID
Los Alamos scientists used computer modeling to forecast the spread of COVID-19 through communities and help decision-makers determine which mitigation strategies were the most effective.

Moving toward a clean-energy future

Advancing fuel cell technology
The U.S. transportation industry is the nation’s largest generator of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly one-third of climate-warming emissions. To move towards a clean-energy future, developing zero-emissions technologies for heavy-duty vehicles is critical. A new partnership comprising Los Alamos National Laboratory, Advent Technology Holdings Inc., Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will work over the next few years to bring to market high-temperature proton exchange membrane (HT-PEM) fuel cells that convert hydrogen and other renewable fuels into electricity.

New fabrication method paves way to large-scale production of perovskite solar cells
A new, simpler solution for fabricating stable perovskite solar cells overcomes the key bottleneck to large-scale production and commercialization of this promising renewable-energy technology, which has remained tantalizingly out of reach for more than a decade.

Using climate science to assess our changing world

Freshwater outflow from Beaufort Sea could alter global climate patterns
The Beaufort Sea, the Arctic Ocean’s largest freshwater reservoir, has increased its freshwater content by 40% over the last two decades, putting global climate patterns at risk. A rapid release of this freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean could wreak havoc on the delicate climate balance that dictates global climate.

Colorado River basin due for more frequent, intense hydroclimate events
In the vast Colorado River basin, climate change is driving extreme, interconnected events among earth-system elements such as weather and water. These events are becoming both more frequent and more intense and are best studied together, rather than in isolation, according to new research.

Antarctica remains the wild card for sea-level rise estimates through 2100
A massive collaborative research project covered in the journal "Nature" offers projections to the year 2100 of future sea-level rise from all sources of land ice, offering the most complete projections created to date.

Why arctic soil can go slip-sliding away
Slow-moving arctic soils form patterns that, from a distance, resemble those found in common fluids such as drips in paint and birthday cake icing. Los Alamos researchers and their collaborators analyzed existing arctic soil formations and compared them to viscous fluids, determining that there is a physical explanation for this pattern that is common to both Earth and Mars landscapes.

VIDEO: Studying climate change in the Arctic
In the Arctic, climate shifts are rapidly changing ecosystems, resulting in large feedbacks between snow, vegetation, and permafrost. Thicker snow leads to warmer permafrost because a deeper snowpack will insulate the ground from the frigid Arctic winter. Because shrubs tend to capture and hold snow, researchers find the warmest temperatures beneath the shrubs, along with warming permafrost. In fact, underneath the shrubs and deep snow, windows — called taliks — into the permafrost will develop, allowing more water, energy, and nutrients to flow into the permafrost, speeding up the rate of warming and thawing.

Global warming, not just drought, drives bark beetles to kill more ponderosa pines 
In California’s Sierra Nevada, western pine beetle infestations amped up by global warming were found to kill 30% more ponderosa pine trees than the beetles do under drought alone. A new supercomputer modeling study hints at the grim prospect of future catastrophic tree die-offs and offers insights for mitigating the combined risk of wildfires and insect outbreaks.

PODCAST: How does climate change affect disease spread‪?
Climate change can make it easier for diseases to jump from animals to humans. Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers Andrew Bartlow, Jeanne Fair and Carrie Manore discuss the impact climate change has on infectious disease spread.

Understanding more about wildfires

Prescribed burns and other low-intensity fires are highly responsive to changes in winds
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and partners have used modeling to highlight the large impact that small changes in wind conditions can have on low-intensity fires or prescribed burns. Conducting safe prescribed fires depends on anticipating the range of potential fire behavior associated with complex wind conditions.

Probing wet fire smoke in clouds: Can water intensify the Earth’s warming?
A first-of-its-kind instrument that samples smoke from megafires and scans humidity will help researchers better understand the scale and long-term impact of fires — specifically how far and high the smoke will travel; when and where it will rain;  and whether the wet smoke will warm the climate by absorbing sunlight.

Understanding pyrocumulonimbi, aka 'fire clouds'
In recent years, megafires and their blanketing haze have become an increasingly familiar sight, along with the towering thunderheads of smoke that form above them. Yet we’re only beginning to learn what causes those awe-inspiring “fire clouds,” what’s in them and what effects they have on weather on climate. Through a combination of field observations, experimental work in the laboratory and computer modeling at local to global scales, our team at Los Alamos National Laboratory is making progress in understanding the mechanisms and climate impacts of pyrocumulonimbus from recent megafires in British Columbia (2017) and Australia (2019-2020).

Making strides in machine learning, AI

Machine learning blazes path to reliable near-term quantum computers
Using machine learning to develop algorithms that compensate for the crippling noise endemic on today’s quantum computers offers a way to maximize their power for reliably performing actual tasks, according to a new paper.

Machine learning aids in simulating dynamics of interacting atoms
A revolutionary machine-learning (ML) approach to simulate the motions of atoms in materials such as aluminum is described in "Nature Communications" journal. This automated approach to “interatomic potential development” could transform the field of computational materials discovery.

New AI tool makes vast data streams intelligible and explainable
Making sense of vast streams of big data is getting easier, thanks to an artificial-intelligence tool developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. SmartTensors sifts through millions of millions of bytes of diverse data to find the hidden features that matter, with significant implications from health care to national security, climate modeling to text mining, and many other fields.

New AI tool tracks evolution of COVID-19 conspiracy theories on social media
A new machine-learning program accurately identifies COVID-19-related conspiracy theories on social media and models how they evolved over time — a tool that could someday help public health officials combat misinformation online.

Machine learning model generates realistic seismic waveforms
A new machine-learning model that generates realistic seismic waveforms will reduce manual labor and improve earthquake detection, according to a study published recently in JGR Solid Earth. 

Machine learning refines earthquake detection capabilities
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are applying machine learning algorithms to help interpret massive amounts of ground deformation data collected with Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) satellites; the new algorithms will improve earthquake detection. 

Science, AI help unlock green energy in northwest New Mexico
A group of Navajo entrepreneurs in Tohatchi have had their eye on the business potential of an oil-exploration well drilled in the 1950s, but they’re not considering fossil fuel production. The well produces water heated by hidden deep geologic processes. As a geothermal energy source, the well might help power the group’s plans to create a long-term food-water-energy nexus on the Navajo Nation, stimulating the local economy while helping New Mexico transition to a carbon-free energy portfolio.

Exploring the next frontier of computing: Quantum

Lack of symmetry in qubits can’t fix errors in quantum computing, but might explain matter/antimatter imbalance
A team of quantum theorists seeking to cure a basic problem with quantum annealing computers — they have to run at a relatively slow pace to operate properly — found something intriguing instead. While probing how quantum annealers perform when operated faster than desired, the team unexpectedly discovered a new effect that may account for the imbalanced distribution of matter and antimatter in the universe and a novel approach to separating isotopes.

Software evaluates qubits, characterizes noise in quantum annealers
High-performance computer users in the market for a quantum annealing machine or looking for ways to get the most out of one they already have will benefit from a new, open-source software tool for evaluating these emerging platforms at the individual qubit level.

New quantum research gives insights into how quantum light can be mastered
A team of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory propose that modulated quantum metasurfaces can control all properties of photonic qubits, a breakthrough that could impact the fields of quantum information, communications, sensing and imaging, as well as energy and momentum harvesting. The results of their study were released yesterday in the journal "Physical Review Letters," published by the American Physical Society.  

Quantum machine learning hits a limit
A new theorem from the field of quantum machine learning has poked a major hole in the accepted understanding about information scrambling. Watch this video to learn more.

Narrowing down the neutrino

Physics experiment boosts evidence for sterile neutrinos
Analysis of results from an experiment called MiniBooNE at Fermilab has provided yet more evidence that particles called “sterile neutrinos” could indeed exist, supporting results from a 1990s Los Alamos National Laboratory experiment that indicated an update to the Standard Model of physics might be in order.

Neutron measured with greatest-ever precision
The neutron, one of the three primary particles comprising everyday matter, was discovered in 1932. But despite all the advances in physics in the last 89 years, the exact life expectancy of the neutron has managed to remain elusive, even disputed. An experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory with twice the precision of previous efforts has now measured the neutron lifetime at 877.75 seconds, with record uncertainty of less than one-tenth of one percent.

Developed radioisotopes to fight cancer and diseases

Los Alamos generator system delivers large radiation doses directly to cancer cells
Improved options for cancer treatment are on the way, thanks to a new system developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory for producing alpha-emitting medical radioisotopes intended to target and overpower diseased tissue while sparing the healthy tissue around it.

Combating drug resistant infections with radioisotopes
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a promising new approach for diagnosing and treating drug-resistant pathogenic microorganisms that uses bacteria-specific siderophores to convey a treatment molecule directly to a pathogen. Siderophores are “iron carriers,” which are molecules produced by microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria that transport iron across cell membranes.  

Answered questions about our galaxy

HAWC Gamma Ray Observatory discovers origin of highest-energy cosmic rays in the galaxy
A long-time question in astrophysics appears to finally be answered, thanks to a collection of large, high-tech water tanks on a mountainside in Mexico. The High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) data shows that the highest-energy cosmic rays come not from supernovae, but from star clusters.

Boundary of heliosphere mapped for the first time
For the first time, the boundary of the heliosphere has been mapped, giving scientists a better understanding of how solar and interstellar winds interact. Watch this video to learn more.

3D simulations improve understanding of energetic-particle radiation and help protect space assets
A team of researchers used 3D particle simulations to model the acceleration of ions and electrons in a physical process called magnetic reconnection. The results could contribute to the understanding and forecasting of energetic particles released during magnetic reconnection, which could help protect space assets and advance space exploration.

Other top stories

B61-12 bomb reaches major milestone
A major milestone has been achieved with the recent delivery of the first production unit (FPU) of the B61-12, meaning the refurbished bomb is on track for full-scale production in May 2022. The bomb has been undergoing a life extension program for more than nine years. Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories are the design agencies for the project, with Los Alamos also being responsible for producing detonators and other classified components.

Integrating diverse satellite images to sharpen our picture of activity on Earth
At Los Alamos National Laboratory, we've developed a flexible mathematical approach to identify changes in satellite image pairs collected from different satellite modalities, or sensor types that use different sensing technologies, allowing for faster, more complete analysis. It's easy to assume that all satellite images are the same and, thus, comparing them is simple. But the reality is quite different. Hundreds of different imaging sensors are orbiting the Earth right now, and nearly all take pictures of the ground in a different way from the others. Watch this video to learn more.

Using supercomputers to reveal how X chromosomes fold, deactivate
Using supercomputer-driven dynamic modeling based on experimental data, researchers can now probe the process that turns off one X chromosome in female mammal embryos. This new capability is helping biologists understand the role of RNA and the chromosome’s structure in the X inactivation process, leading to a deeper understanding of gene expression and opening new pathways to drug treatments for gene-based disorders and diseases. Watch this video to learn more.

Newly identified tiny mineral named for Los Alamos and U. Wisconsin scientists
A vanishingly tiny mineral is being named for two scientists who have revolutionized the analysis of mineral samples. Xuite (pronounced “zoo-ite”), the newest member of the nano-mineral pantheon, is named in honor of Los Alamos National Laboratory mineralogist Hongwu Xu and the University of Wisconsin’s Huifang Xu.

Optical biosensor device aids in biomarker identification
Work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in conjunction with its research partners, provides valuable new insights into the diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB) using blood tests. A paper in the journal "PLOS ONE" demonstrates the role that host-pathogen interactions play in detecting key biomarkers in blood, facilitating the diagnosis of disseminated or sub-clinical TB disease.

Discovery of new material could someday aid in nuclear nonproliferation
A newly discovered quasicrystal that was created by the first nuclear explosion at Trinity Site, N.M., on July 16, 1945, could someday help scientists better understand illicit nuclear explosions and curb nuclear proliferation. Watch this video to learn more.

Thin, stretchable biosensors could make surgery safer
A research team from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Purdue University have developed bio-inks for biosensors that could help localize critical regions in tissues and organs during surgical operations.

Stress in Earth’s crust determined without earthquake data
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a method to determine the orientation of mechanical stress in the Earth’s crust without relying on data from earthquakes or drilling. This method, which is less expensive than current approaches, could have broad applicability in geophysics and provide insight into continental regions lacking historical geologic information.

Bacteria, fungi interact far more often than previously thought
In a novel, broad assessment of bacterial-fungal interactions, researchers using unique bioinformatics found that fungi host a remarkable diversity of bacteria, making bacterial-fungal interactions far more common and diverse than previously known.

Lightning in the water: Ultrafast X-ray provides new look at plasma discharge breakdown in water
Lightning is fast, but how fast? A Laboratory collaboration recently turned to synchrotron X-rays for an answer. The story of the discovery of the connection between electricity and lightning is well known — in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin, unaware of the danger of the electrical forces he was corralling, sent a key on a kite into the churn of a storm cloud. In the subsequent centuries, through experimentation and calculation, much has been learned about lightning, or plasma.

NEWS STORY: Guarding electrical power grids against hacker attacks
Physicist Ray Newell and his team were testing how to protect electrical networks long before the hacking of Colonial Pipeline’s operating computers. Newell presented his research on fiber-optics encryption, which is in use at Los Alamos Laboratory during a free, Lab-sponsored Frontiers in Science virtual talk in May.

Potential melanoma-fighting agent discovered on sea floor near Antarctica
A Los Alamos scientist and his colleagues traced a naturally produced melanoma-fighting compound to a microbe that lives in an underwater species called an ascidian and known as a sea squirt. Scientist Patrick Chain noted the crucial  detective work they performed to figure out which organisms and the underlying molecular machines produce the potential anti-melanoma properties.

Decades of research brings quantum dots to brink of widespread use
A new article in Science magazine gives an overview of almost three decades of research into colloidal quantum dots, assesses the technological progress for these nanometer-sized specs of semiconductor matter, and weighs the remaining challenges on the path to widespread commercialization for this promising technology with applications in everything from TVs to highly efficient sunlight collectors.

How microbiomes help secure the food chain
Scientist Sanna Sevanto, in the Laboratory’s Earth System Observations group, and her team are researching how microbial adjustments in soil can alter a plant’s physiology. Could a plant be made to require less water by adding microbes? That’s the question Sevanto is trying to answer. The team is currently studying the efficacy of two different microbiomes: one from the Crops Research Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colo., and the second from Los Alamos. Watch this video to learn more.

Translation software enables efficient DNA data storage
In support of a major collaborative project to store massive amounts of data in DNA molecules, a Los Alamos National Laboratory–led team has developed a key enabling technology that translates digital binary files into the four-letter genetic alphabet needed for molecular storage.

Colloidal quantum dot lasers poised to come of age
A new paper by authors from Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories sums up the recent progress in colloidal-quantum-dot research and highlights the remaining challenges and opportunities in the rapidly developing field, which is poised to enable a wide array of new laser-based and LED-based technology applications.