Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

Faces of innovation

Meet seven scientists and engineers who are pioneering new technology and programs at Los Alamos. Their groundbreaking ideas, experiments, and data have big implications for national security.
March 1, 2019
A graphic that reads Faces of Innovation with a lightbulb acting as the second O.

Scientists and engineers who are pioneering new technology.CREDIT: Mike Pierce


“Scorpius will be used to help us learn more about aging plutonium. As we learn more, we’ll be able to make our weapons safer and more secure.”- Dave Funk

Dave Funk, senior project director

Radiographic imaging for late-stage subcritical implosions

A man standing in a tunnel.

Dave Funk leads Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments, one of the initiatives the United States is pursuing “to ensure the necessary capability, capacity and responsiveness of the nuclear weapons infrastructure and the needed skills of the nuclear enterprise workforce,” according to the Nuclear Posture Review presented to Congress in 2018.

Dave Funk has a complicated job. He leads a multi-lab effort to design and build a linear induction accelerator that can take x-rays (radiographs) of the late stages of implosion experiments at NNSS. Not only that, his team has to assemble the accelerator in a tunnel 960 feet underground.

Funk, of the Laboratory’s Accelerator Development Program Office, is the senior director of the Advanced Sources and Detectors (ASD) Project, part of the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments (ECSE), a federally directed portfolio to enable studies of what happens to plutonium during the late stages of its implosion (compression) inside a nuclear weapon. Those studies will take the form of contained implosion experiments that include fissionable, or fissile, nuclear materials. Those materials, however, are not allowed to “go critical,” so the experiments produce no nuclear yield. These noncritical experiments, called subcritical experiments, or subcrits, will be carried out in NNSS’s U1a Complex, a subterranean laboratory.

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Starting in the 1960s, U1a was used for underground nuclear tests, but those tests stopped with the 1992 moratorium on U.S. nuclear weapons testing and the advent of science-based stockpile stewardship—experiments and computer simulations that give scientists the confidence they need to ensure the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile.

The accelerator for which Funk is responsible—Scorpius—will be located in a new U1a tunnel and will be a key ECSE diagnostic tool. The radiographs it takes will allow researchers to analyze exactly what’s happening from the beginning to the end of each experimental implosion. Creating those radiographs requires a lot of high-energy x-rays, which is why the 20-megaelectronvolt (MeV) Scorpius is named after the brightest x-ray source, other than the sun, that is visible from Earth.

The ability to take radiographs of subcritical experiments is the biggest difference between Scorpius and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility at Los Alamos, which has been used since 2000 for hydrodynamic implosion experiments. These “hydros” get so hot that the imploded materials melt and flow like water. DARHT takes up to five high-speed radiographic images of a mock-nuclear device (it contains no fissile materials), capturing the images as the device implodes at speeds greater than 10,000 miles an hour. Data from the radiographs are compared with high-performance computing simulations that predict how well a real nuclear weapon will perform.

“While DARHT provides multiple high-quality radiographic images of the late-time implosion of weapons containing surrogate (nonfissile) materials, Scorpius will provide, for the first time in the United States, the same radiographic imaging capabilities as DARHT, but on experiments that contain fissile materials such as plutonium,” explains Technical Director Mark Crawford, who oversees the development and implementation of the radiographic system.

Because Scorpius will radiograph subcritical implosion experiments containing plutonium, scientists hope to learn a lot about how this fissile material acts in the later stages of an implosion. Plutonium is a key element in current U.S. nuclear weapons, some of which are more than 40 years old.

Does old plutonium behave like new plutonium?

“Scorpius will be used to help us learn more about aging plutonium,” explains Funk, noting that newfound knowledge will be coupled with data from past experiments and underground testing. “As we learn more, we’ll be able to make our weapons safer and more secure.”

Mining—aka drilling—the 420-foot-long tunnel for Scorpius is currently underway. After the soil and rock are hauled up an 8-foot-square elevator shaft, the accelerator’s parts will be sent down the same shaft for assembly underground. Three-dimensional computer models are being used to work out the logistics of building a 300-plus-foot-long accelerator composed of an injector, 72 cells, a transport region, and an x-ray converter target.

Entombment drifts (tunnels) will also be mined. After each experiment, the six-foot spherical containment vessels in which the experiments occur will be “entombed”—placed at the end of one of these tunnels and sealed off to isolate and contain the nuclear material.

“The biggest challenge for us in building Scorpius has been to develop the necessary accelerator architecture and technologies that will enable multi-image radiography in the very limited space of the underground tunnels where the experiments must occur,” Crawford explains. “We have strived to build on the technology base from DARHT wherever possible, but we will be using a novel solid-state (electronics) pulsed-power system developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.”

This innovative pulsed-power system allows for higher-quality images and the ability to take radiographs at very specific intervals. In this system, Scorpius generates high-energy electron pulses that are timed by the scientists and may be as close together as 200 nanoseconds (billionths of a second). Energy is added to the electrons as they travel the length of the accelerator. Near the end, magnets focus electrons onto a target that converts the electron pulses to x-rays. As the x-rays go through the test device (the imploding subcritical experiment), they are converted to normal light in a scintillator. That light is recorded by a camera. (Of course, a camera that can capture four images as close together as 200 nanoseconds doesn’t exist yet, but MIT Lincoln Labs is partnering with the Laboratory to change that.)

Scorpius is expected to be operating by 2025. Its first set of experiments will focus on the W80-4, a nuclear warhead currently going through a life extension program (LEP) that will keep it in use in U.S. air-launched cruise missiles far into the future. Los Alamos designed the original W80 in 1976, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is overseeing the LEP.

The multi-lab history of the W80 makes that warhead a fitting subject for tests at U1a. Scorpius, after all, is a multi-lab project. “This is a closely coordinated effort between Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, and NNSS,” Crawford says. “The coordination is necessary not only because of the broad range of technical skills required to bring the system to completion, but also because no single site can provide the necessary number of people for the project while still meeting other institutional priorities.”

In addition, “with a planned lifetime of 30 years, Scorpius, with the capabilities it will bring to NNSS, will help us train the next generation of experimentalists and weapons designers across the entire DOE complex, ensuring the strength of our deterrent for decades to come,” Funk says.

—Whitney Spivey


Jennifer Harris, biologist

Artificial lungs protect against threats on the battlefield and beyond

A women in a lab coat, safety glasses, and gloves stands next to a medical device.

Jennifer Harris. Major funding for the PuLMo project is provided by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. PuLMo is part of the larger ATHENA (Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer) program to design an integrated, miniaturized surrogate human organ system that includes the heart, liver, and lung.

Scientists rely on animal testing to show a new drug is safe for the public, but biological differences between humans and animals complicate the testing process. One such difference is simply the air animals and humans breathe. Mice, for example, scamper and sniff at ground level, so their lungs are adapted to life down low, often in filth. Humans walk upright, so their respiratory systems typically breathe higher, cleaner air. These differences mean that mice are imperfect analogs as test subjects for drugs meant for humans. In fact, drugs that have passed animal testing have even proven dangerous to humans.

The need to build a bridge between animal and human studies and effectively test new drugs with minimal risk motivates Jennifer Harris of Biosecurity and Public Health. Harris is one of the leaders of the bioengineering capability at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She specializes in creating laboratory-based artificial organs designed to be better preclinical test platforms than animals.

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Harris’ love is the lung, and her team won an R&D 100 Award in 2016 for its work on PuLMo, a miniature human lung model. PuLMo co-cultures many different types of lung cells and replicates the conditions in an actual human lung, even the mechanical stresses of breathing. A PuLMo unit resembles the human organ in cellular function but not in appearance; the model is rectangular, about the size of a shoebox, and features dozens of modular components, including the system’s life support system of valves, tubes, pumps, and reservoirs.

Along with their interest in pharmaceutical applications, bioengineers at Los Alamos are working to adapt the PuLMo technology to identify and counter biological, chemical, and radiological threats. Work is underway to make the technology deployable in two modes depending on the scenario and threat. In one mode, the technology is brought to bear on the battlefield in broad sweeps (such as in a flyover) to “inhale” large amounts of air and characterize potential airborne contaminants before soldiers are exposed to the environment. This grants warfighters critical intelligence about airborne threats and allows them to utilize proper protective gear to prevent human exposure.

In the second mode, the technology operates in a lightweight, wearable device that continuously monitors the air that a soldier breathes, scanning and analyzing potential contaminants. The device would provide immediate actionable intelligence in life-or-death situations, allowing medical personnel to prioritize treatment of soldiers on the battlefield and apply countermeasures.

“To see lung cells grow and perform like they’re supposed to in PuLMo is amazing,” Harris says. As the technology evolves, it promises to serve as a sentinel for respiratory safety anywhere it is deployed.

—Justin Warner

Gary Grider, supercomputing scientist

New ThunderX2 processors boost efficiency in nuclear stockpile simulations
Portrait photo of a man.

Gary Grider.

In the world of supercomputers, “fastest” traditionally equates to “best.” But Los Alamos’ High Performance Supercomputing Division leader, Gary Grider, is shaking up tradition.

Rather than continuing to aspire to the fastest computers, Grider chooses to focus the division’s efforts on computing efficiency, a more relevant and timely consideration for U.S. national security applications.
For decades, the TOP500 list—a notable world ranking of supercomputers by speed—was the gold standard for determining who could boast the top computer. Los Alamos played prominently in the competition, earning first-place rankings several times over.

A computer’s speed is assessed by the number of rapid calculations, or floating point operations per second (flops), it can execute for every watt of electricity it uses. Known as flops per watt, that criterion has influenced the supercomputing industry, but that benchmark has become less relevant for mission-centric computing: simulating nuclear weapon performance as part of the national program for monitoring the health and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. For those simulations—the bread and butter of the Laboratory’s national security mission—Grider explains, “the target of flops per watt has led to inefficient use of supercomputers—think 1 percent efficient for our needs.”

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Supercomputing has reached a fork in the road, with the TOP500 chasers speeding in one direction and the Grider team focusing on extreme-scale computing environments that achieve higher efficiency. Grider’s team calls itself the Efficient Mission-Centric Computing Consortium (EMC3) and, in addition to the Laboratory, it includes Mellanox Technologies, DDN Storage, nCorium, and Marvell.

EMC3 recently brought Marvell’s new ThunderX2 ARM processors to Los Alamos. Rather than focusing on speed, the ThunderX2 answers the call for more-efficient extreme-scale weapons simulations.
The ThunderX2 offers high memory bandwidth and tolerance of complex problem solving that’s strategically targeted to Laboratory and EMC3 needs. In addition to its efficiency, the ThunderX2 was also rapidly deployable—weapons applications were moved quickly from previous processors. This was a result of careful planning and execution, both in the design of the processor and in the deployment strategy.

The ThunderX2 is the first in Grider’s planned family of more efficient processors. Marvell and the Lab are allying to create a variety of new architectural components (pieces of hardware and software) that will focus on higher-efficiency, more stockpile-valuable computing in the coming decade.

—Katharine Coggeshall

Phil Blom, geophysicist

Infrasound for missile tracking

Portrait photo of a man.

Phil Blom is the Laboratory’s lead scientist for infrasound research. He is a co-organizer for the annual Infrasound & Missiles Workshop held each April at the Missile and Space Intelligence Center in Alabama.

If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? That’s the question Phil Blom of the Lab’s seismoacoustics team is researching…but with a national security twist. Blom wants to know if a missile launches or a nuclear device explodes or a supersonic aircraft flies by, and no one hears, do those things make sound?

The answer, of course, is yes (anything that moves air creates sound, which travels in waves), and Blom researches the details using atmospheric acoustics—the study of how sound waves propagate in the atmosphere—and infrasonics—the study of sound waves with frequencies too low for humans to hear. What type of missile launched? How big was the nuclear explosion? Where did that supersonic aircraft go?

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“Infrasonic waves travel large distances,” Blom says. “But they’re detectable 24/7 by microbarometer sensors on the earth’s surface that inexpensively and precisely measure fluctuations in air pressure.” A large area can be monitored without a dense network of sensors, and sensors don’t have to be near the source (of a missile launch, for example) to acquire data.

Groups of microbarometers can detect the direction sound moves from its source. But doing that for a fast-moving source can be tricky, so Blom turns to atmospheric acoustic modeling—predicting how acoustic energy spreads through the atmosphere. “We use modeling to better understand how infrasonic waves propagate from the source to the sensor; then we can learn where the infrasonic signal came from and what produced it,” Blom says. “This potentially enables us to discern the type of missile, how it was launched, and its trajectory.”

Because of infrasound’s relatively slow propagation speed, Blom’s research will likely never be a warning system for incoming missiles. Instead, it can be used to retroactively detect, track, and characterize missiles that have already launched. “We can help characterize missile performance,” he says, “what occurred during launch, flight, and reentry.” Infrasound also has increasing battlefield applications, such as tracking aircraft, localizing the source of gunfire, and detecting tunnels.

Combined with seismic, electromagnetic, or other data types, “infrasonic signatures contribute to a more complete picture and improve our confidence in characterizing foreign weapons systems,” Blom explains.
Blom hopes to use supercomputers to improve modeling and characterization. “The future will bring even finer characterizations of missiles and supersonic aircraft, as well as explosions and other phenomena,” he says. “Infrasound is proving very useful for national security and nuclear nonproliferation.”

—Whitney Spivey

Neale Pickett, computer scientist

Defending against the dark art of computer hacking

A man sits in an office chair.

“We’re less the cops and more the detectives,” Pickett says. “Cybersecurity investigation is like the CSI television series, but with less gore.”

Neale Pickett is the literal poster boy for cybersecurity at Los Alamos. On a flyer advertising a lecture about “defending yourself from the dark forces of the internet,” Pickett was illustrated as a superhero in body armor, wielding a sword and shield, to represent his role as a champion cybercrime fighter.
Much of Pickett’s work focuses on cybercrime, which he describes as a “cheaper, more covert way to disrupt a government than previous types of espionage.”

Cybercrime is any criminal activity involving a computer or the internet. For example, a bad guy might send phishing emails with an attachment carrying a virus that, if opened, infects computer software and even hardware. Or worse, the virus may allow the bad guy to access information on a computer or its servers.

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Nefarious characters keep coming up with new challenges. Part of Pickett’s job is training the good guys to be ready for anything. For the 10th year, Cyber Fire, a cybersecurity training program Pickett developed, will teach students hands-on techniques for dealing with cyberattacks. In 2019, four sessions of Cyber Fire courses will be held to meet increased training demands.

“We’re developing a sense of teamwork by bringing together students from national laboratories, the military, the aerospace industry, U.S. government agencies, and even other governments,” Pickett says. “The bad guys are working in concert, so the defenders need to work in concert as well.”

Pickett’s Cyber Fire course, “Network Archaeology,” teaches analysts how to dig up and decipher digital evidence. “In archaeology, you don’t have manuals, just artifacts. If people stumble across a CD 300 years from now, they may wonder what we did with this technology, and they’ll have to figure out how they can access its data. That’s what we’re doing now: teaching techniques for deciphering other languages.”

Pickett also teaches middle school and high school students, showing them how to systematically analyze a computer’s defenses and vulnerabilities and how to think like the hackers they need to defend against.
Cybersecurity requires fundamental information technology skills such as systems design and computer architecture, as well as an understanding of programming languages for writing and deciphering code. Creativity is also an essential skill. “Computer programming is an inherently creative endeavor,” Pickett explains. “At Cyber Fire, we’re giving people an environment where creative thinking yields results, often wildly different results from one student to the next.”

Cristina Olds

Katie Mussack, physicist

Using teamwork to solve difficult national security challenges

Portrait photo of a woman.

“Be flexible with the way you approach a problem,” says physicist Katie Mussack, paraphrasing advice from her mentor John Pedicini. “Be tied to the outcomes and not to the specific details of the process.”

In 1945, the U.S. Navy had a question: Could its ships survive a nuclear blast? It turned to Los Alamos, which provided an answer after the 1946 Crossroads test series in the Pacific. In 2018, the Navy had another question—a classified one—this time about nuclear weapons. Once again, it turned to Los Alamos for an answer.

“To answer the question, we started brainstorming,” says physicist Katie Mussack, who partnered with colleagues Omar Wooten and Guillermo Terrones on what she calls “thought experiments.”

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“We started by talking about the physics at play and how we wanted to change the dynamics of the system in the question,” she explains. The trio discussed and went back and forth on new ideas. Then they independently investigated different parts of the problem before continuing their conversation. Eventually, they began doing computer simulations, with actual experiments to come later.

“Our initial goal was to show the Navy that we could be responsive when asked a question,” Mussack says. “Then we came up with ideas that could actually work.”

Mussack’s mentor, celebrated weapons designer John Pedicini, provided behind-the-scenes guidance and encouragement. “He pushed us, but he did it out of love: love for us, the science, the product, the nation,” Mussack says. “His encouragement gave us the freedom to explore and trust ourselves while also questioning ourselves. We needed to think deeply about what we were doing.”

They also needed to talk about what they were doing—to bounce ideas off colleagues not directly involved in the problem. “The Lab is not just a collaborative environment. It’s a collaborative environment full of experts,” Mussack says. “Everyone’s door is open, and people are excited to talk about their work and thoughts.”

Mussack is quick to point out that her team’s ability to answer a challenging question builds on not only this collaborative environment but also on decades of previous Laboratory research. “I looked back though historical documents and saw ideas that were similar to the ideas we were brainstorming,” she says. “I was able to use some of those ideas and develop them further to finally answer the Navy’s question.”

“Innovation is slow steady progress that builds to one thing that people notice,” she continues, noting that progress is often the result of failure. “You come up with an idea, try it, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.”

—Whitney Spivey

Cristian Pantea, acoustic scientist

Seeing into bombs with sound

Portrait photo of a man.

Cristian Pantea.

When bomb squads are called to check out a potential bomb, they need answers to critical questions. Is the bomb a fake? If it’s real, is it stable enough to be defused, or could it explode at any second?

A Los Alamos–invented acoustic imaging device, called ACCObeam, is being repurposed to remove much of that uncertainty. Using ACCObeam’s sound waves, bomb techs of the future may be able to build 3D images of bombs without physically looking inside them. Cristian Pantea, an acoustic scientist who helped create ACCObeam, or the Acoustic Collimated Beam, is working with a team to refine this device so that bomb squads can get all the data they need to make life-saving decisions in only a few minutes.

“The data ACCObeam gives us doesn’t provide all the answers, but it can at least show techs whether they’re dealing with a dud, something that could explode momentarily, or something that can be defused slowly and carefully,” Pantea says.

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An early version of ACCObeam was invented years ago to assess the stability of gas and oil pipelines. The device emits a low-frequency, acoustic beam that’s ultra-narrow (collimated). Users can assess the makeup of almost any material in any medium, such as water, rock, or metal, simply by changing frequencies and seeing how the sound waves penetrate or reflect off different objects. The end result is a 3D image with excellent resolution. In action, ACCObeam can show objects’ imperfections and densities and even distinguish between different materials.

For all its power and precision, ACCObeam is also tiny—smaller than a human pinky fingernail. The device’s portable nature and great resolution gave its inventors the idea of using it to “see” inside bombs on location.

In practical terms, this kind of data could help guide bomb techs who often have to make an urgent choice: whether to defuse a suspected explosive on site or try to move it to a safe detonation zone.

“Our goal is to make this device so precise and easy to use that bomb squads could get all the data they need to make life-saving decisions in 5–10 minutes from the time they approach.” Pantea cautions that ACCObeam isn’t ready for prime time yet. More work is being done to test how well the prototype can discriminate between types of explosives.

Depending on the outcome of that research, Pantea and his teammates at Los Alamos hope to license the device in about five years. For bomb squads and the many people they protect, the device would be lifesaving.

—H. Kris Fronzak