Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

2011 R&D 100 Award Submissions

Discoveries, developments, advancements and inventions pouring from Los Alamos make America—and the world—a better and safer place and bolster national security.

R&D WinnerNanoCluster Beacons: Shedding Light on Specific Nucleic-Acid Targets

NNanoCluster Beacons: Shedding Light on Specific Nucleic-acid Targets NanoCluster Beacons (NCBs) use a collection of a few atoms of silver as fluorescent reporters and are designed to bind with specific nucleic acid targets, such as pathogenic DNA. Once bound with a specific target, a NanoCluster Beacon lights up, emitting fluorescence approximately 200 times greater than that in the unbound state. The resultant emission can be viewed with the naked eye under ultraviolet (UV) light. NanoCluster Beacons come in a rainbow of colors available for multiplexed analysis.

Reversible, inexpensive and easy to use, NanoCluster Beacons are superior molecular probes for detecting targets such as influenza DNA, human oncogene (cancer) sequences and molecular disease sequences (such as sickle cell anemia).


  • Human Health Care: NCBs can be used to identify pathogenic DNA. In addition, NCBs can identify single-nucleotide polymorphisms that play important roles in many human diseases. Variation in human genomes affects how individuals develop diseases and how individuals respond to pathogens and therapeutic agents (vaccines and drugs) used for treatment, thus NCBs can be used for personalized medicine
  • Contrast Agent for Fluorescence Microscopy: NCBs are more photostable than organic dyes, come in a rainbow of colors and can be turned on and off reversibly. NCBs can, with a good fluorescence microscope, be visualized at the individual nanocluster level. These fluorescent properties make NCBs useful for both conventional and new single-molecule-based super resolution imaging methods.
  • Quantitative Biology: NCBs can be used to count individual RNA molecules inside a cell. The direct enumeration of RNA copy number helps scientists study sophisticated gene regulatory networks for a better understanding of cellular function.


  • Enable easy identification of specific nucleic acid targets in samples with the naked eye (under UV light).
  • Provide point-of-care testing (diagnostic testing at or near the site of patient care), easily differentiating single-nucleotide polymorphisms at room temperature.
  • Achieve a signal-to-background ratio of approximately 200—over five times better than that of conventional molecular beacons.
  • Nearly an order of magnitude cheaper than conventional molecular beacons (MBs)—$0.30 per nanomole for NCBs as opposed to an average of $3.00 per nanomole for MBs.
TAPSS: Trapped Annular Pressure Shrinking SpacerR&D Winner

TAPSS: Trapped Annualr Pressure Shrinking SpacerConventional drilling fluids used to drill deepwater oil wells are at the mercy of heat. Trapped behind pipe, such drilling fluids, when exposed to the heat from oil, undergo thermal expansion. The resultant pressure in such pipes can be as high as 12,000 pounds per square inch 25,000 feet below the ocean floor, leading to catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. To prevent future disasters, we have developed TAPSS (trapped annular pressure shrinking spacer), a fluid that shrinks—rather than expands—when heated, thus preventing the buildup of pressure that can lead to lost production, or far worse, catastrophic oil spills.


  • Deepwater oil wells: When used, TAPSS can (1) avert catastrophic failure of oil wells worth as much as $200 million to $300 million, (2) eliminate lost production time and (3) prevent disastrous damage to the environment.


  • Provides relief from annular pressure buildup for life of well (and beyond)
  • Functions on its own, requiring no adjustment or modification
  • Requires no maintenance and scales to any size annulus
  • Applies to any well around the world
  • Requires minimal time to set up equipment
Th-ING: Thorium Is Now GreenR&D Winner

Th-ING: Thorium Is Now GreenImagine a nuclear reactor that is safe because it would never melt down. The key to creating such as reactor is thorium, a lustrous silver-white metal that is only slightly radioactive—you could carry a lump of it in your pocket for a while without harm.

Current methods used to produce thorium materials are expensive, environmentally hazardous, and dangerous to personnel. We have developed a new method that circumvents these pitfalls to produce a new thorium chloride reagent, ThCl4(DME)2. Our cost-effective, safe, green and scalable method will not only enable the use of stockpiled nuclear waste as fuel but also help establish thorium-based reactors as a key sustainable energy source for the future.


  • Thorium-based nuclear reactors: Such reactors are scalable (a 100-megawatt power station could be made for the same cost as an airplane) and function at lower temperatures (thus converting energy more efficiently). Moreover, thorium is three times more available than uranium—enough to last hundreds of years.
  • Materials and chemistry: Thorium and thorium compounds have numerous applications, from aircraft engines and spacecraft, to heat-resistant ceramics, high-quality lenses for cameras and scientific instruments and mantles for natural gas lamps, oil lamps and camping lights.


  • Cost-effective: Costs only $30 per kilogram to produce, as compared with other products, which cost as much as $5,000 per kilogram to produce
  • Environmentally green: Our process is quantitative, does not produce wasteful solvent ring-opening/polymerization and does not waste thorium (95% production yields).
  • Safe: Does not require high temperatures or the use of hazardous chemicals such as chlorine gas or carbon tetrachloride
QKarD: Quantum Cryptography in a Smartcard

QKarD: Quantum Cryptography in a SmartcardAn ever-increasing amount of our personal and business lives is conducted on mobile devices, yet our mobile communications are ever more vulnerable to hacking. We have brought the superior security of quantum cryptography to handheld devices with our advances in the design and miniaturization of quantum communications technology. As part of a smartphone or other mobile device, the QKarD works by communicating with a trusted authority via optical fiber to generate secure random-number cryptographic keys to encode and decode information. The keys stored in the QKarD are available for use once the QKarD is undocked so that all forms of mobile communications, transactions, and authentication can be made secure. The laws of quantum physics and information theory ensure that the keys will never succumb to computer attack and that attempts to steal or copy keys can be detected and foiled, ensuring provable security for all uses now and into the future.


QKarD secures communications in a handheld, portable format for

  • Smartphone calls, texting, banking and other online transactions
  • strong authentication for access to secure facilities or for border crossings
  • digital rights management controls and electronic voting


  • Future-proof security of quantum cryptography now in a handheld device
  • Minimal processing requirements that are compatible with mobile communications
  • Long-term security eliminates the costs of managing security software
RCE-CDR: Reactive Co-Evaporation by Cyclic Deposition and Reaction

RRCE-CDR: Reactive Co-Evaporation by Cyclic Deposition and ReactionAlthough superconductor wires offer zero loss in electric power applications and enable smaller devices such as generators, a key obstacle for broad market acceptance remains the cost of the high temperature superconductor (HTS) wire. The cost/performance metric is currently too high for wide commercial acceptance of superconductor wire. Our RCE-CDR process uses a reel-to-reel tape deposition process, fed through a rotary heater, which allows us to scale-up coating to wider tapes, uses less-expensive starting materials and also provides higher throughput. Our process further increases yields, and all of these factors lower the manufacturing costs of HTS wire to a level suitable to create large commercial markets.


The primary application of our RCE-CDR process will be to fabricate lower-cost, higher-performance superconductor wire for a variety of electric power devices:

  • Rotating machines, such as large electric generators and motors
  • Superconducting transmission cables
  • Superconducting magnets, such as those used in MRI devices


  • Delivers higher currents in a magnetic field compared with current superconductor wire
  • Increases production throughput and yield of superconductor wire
  • Lowers wire production costs more than 20 times

R&D Winner = Winner