We had the opportunity to meet many scientists working on a wide array of projects, some of them attempting to solve seemingly unsolvable problems — like the downcycling and reuse of nuclear waste, real-time climate modeling, superconducting transmission cables, and market-ready nanowire solar cells.
What struck me the most was the fine line between national security and renewable energy development. LANL is first and foremost a defense and weapons lab, created to protect the nation from mass destruction. So it is not surprising that they are now throwing huge resources into what truly is the greatest threat to national security — climate change.
One of my first discussions was with a couple of young scientists working on one of the world's most sophisticated climate models called COSIM — the Climate, Ocean and Sea Ice Modeling project which tracks everything from melting sea ice and deep ocean currents to electric grid overloads to pandemics that might come as a result of either gradual or sudden climate shifts.
I then made a bee line to the nuclear section where about a dozen or so projects where on display, with such over-the-head titles as "Transuranic Coordination Chemistry: the underpinning science of separations for advanced fuel cycles." LANL has assembled a rock star team of physicists and chemists to tackle the ginormous waste problem associated with spent nuclear fuels.
There were many approaches on display (and this will be the subject of a much more involved post later) but the basic gist of the research is to develop methods for separating out the most dangerous isotopes from nuclear waste, called actonites (which can have a half-life of 200,000 years or more) thus producing a new fuel stock with less malignant waste. Overall takeaway — we have a long, long way to go before we get safe nuclear energy, but it is on the horizon.
We also spent time with the nanowire guy and the superconducting tape guy, both of which will be the subject of upcoming posts. And there were a bunch of interesting biofuel research projects. New Mexico is emerging as a leading biofuels technology center (thanks in part to its big sunny skies) and will be hosting an advanced biofuels research conference here in May.
All in all an amazing trip that has my mind reeling about the absolute enormity of resolving energy demands within climate constraints. But it was certainly reassuring to see an army of bright-eyed scientists who instead of working on warheads, were waging war against climate change.