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Learn more about the stories we covered in the episode! We picked the order at random for the show, but here are all 17 listed alphabetically by laboratory:
RESEARCHING THE 2ND DIMENSION: Science fiction talks about the fifth dimension, but Ames scientists are more fascinated by the second dimension and their ability to see individual atoms.
IN THE ARMS OF T-REX: The extremely bright X-rays from the Advanced Photon Source, a giant synchrotron light source nearly a mile around, will give scientists an unprecedented look inside the arm bones of SUE, which is the largest and best-preserved T. rex skeleton ever found.
FIRST VIDEO GAME?: More than 50 years ago, before either arcades or home video games, visitors waited in line at Brookhaven National Laboratory to play “Tennis for Two,” an electronic tennis game that is unquestionably a forerunner of the modern video game.
THE ART OF FERMILAB: The interplay of art and science has been an essential part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab throughout its 50-year history. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the work of the legendary Angela Gonzales, the laboratory’s 11th employee and first and only full-time artist.
NUCLEAR PIONEERS: The technology for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine was pioneered in the desert of Idaho. Today, the lab’s Advanced Test Reactor supports a wide variety of government and privately sponsored research.
MATERIALS MAGIC: Berkeley Lab’s Materials Project is using supercomputers to calculate the properties of every existing inorganic compound on Earth -- along with many more that don’t exist yet -- to spark a materials science revolution.
PLANETARY DEFENDERS: Asteroids headed for a collision with the Earth, if found early enough, can be acted upon to prevent the potentially devastating consequences of an impact. One way to do that? With a nuclear explosive.
WILDFIRE WIZARDRY: Understanding and predicting wildfire behavior is a difficult scientific problem, but Rod Linn’s team is tackling research that could save lives using Los Alamos supercomputing power.
FREEING REEs: Contrary to their name, Rare earth elements aren’t actually very rare, but they’re incredibly useful. Cell phones, computers, satellites -- all kinds of things use rare earth elements. And one place you can find them is in coal.
SUPER HEATING: NREL teamed with Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Intel to develop the innovative warm-water, liquid-cooled Peregrine supercomputer, which not only operates efficiently but also serves as the primary source of building heat for NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility offices and laboratories.
POWERING SPACE EXPLORATION: For the first time in decades, Oak Ridge scientists are producing plutonium-238, a specialized radioactive fuel that will provide power for NASA and other missions into deep space.
SOUND OF SCIENCE: In the 1970s, PNNL invented a technique called optical digital recording that stores information as a track of dots about one micron in diameter. This innovation served as the critical design element for compact discs and DVDs.
A STAR ON EARTH: Fusion is created using plasma, the fourth element of matter, and it’s the process that powers the sun and the stars. PPPL is working to create and harness the power of a star right here on Earth.
ROBOT RODEO: Welcome to the annual Western National Robot Rodeo, a thrilling four-day event where civilian and military bomb squad teams get practice using robots to defuse diverse, dangerous situations.
VIRTUAL REACTOR: How do you decommission a Cold War-era production nuclear reactor that’s more than 60 years old? With virtual reality, Savannah River Lab scientists have found a powerful tool to help with this sensitive work.
FEMTOSECOND: Linac Coherent Light Source X-ray laser and other advanced lasers to capture some of nature’s speediest processes that occur in just femtoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second.
UNIVERSAL GLUE: Our visible universe is built mostly of glue, which generates roughly 98 percent of visible mass. Now, an experiment is gearing up to study novel manifestations of that glue.
DOZIER: One of the big challenges of working at the Department of Energy is trying to tell the story of what this agency does.
LANTERO: Part of it’s in the name. You hear “energy,” and the first thing that comes to mind is power plants, transmission lines, light bulbs, solar panels -- that kind of stuff. Which is true, but that’s just a piece of the agency’s mission.
DOZIER: For example, we are responsible for securing and maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal. We also work to clean up the environmental legacy of building and testing those weapons.
LANTERO: And then there’s this whole other part of the agency that is focused on one thing: science. I’m talking about the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories. There are 17 of them.
DOZIER: And they all do really different stuff. Think of a big scientific question or challenge, and one or more of the labs is probably working on it.
LANTERO: Which can make it hard to talk about all 17 of them -- there’s just too much to cover in one episode.
DOZIER: ...Or is there? I’m Matt Dozier...
LANTERO: …and I’m Allison Lantero. And today, we’re taking on that challenge. Buckle up for a journey through all 17 National Labs… in 17 minutes.
DOZIER: Couple ground rules: We’re using our 60 seconds to bring you one surprising story from each lab. So remember, this is just a tiny taste of what the labs have to offer.
LANTERO: Matt, let’s pull names out of a hat to decide the order.
DOZIER: That seems fair.
LANTERO: Oh, and be sure to stick around after the 17 minutes are up, for a quick message from a special guest and big fan of the labs.
DOZIER: I guess you go first.
LANTERO: I should go first for you, so our first lab that we’re going to hear about is… Sandia.
DOZIER: And next up, NETL.
LANTERO: SLAC Lab.
LANTERO: Los Alamos.
DOZIER: Jefferson Lab.
LANTERO: Savannah River.
DOZIER: Idaho National Lab.
LANTERO: Oak Ridge.
LANTERO: And last but not least, NREL.
(DIRECT CURRENT SHOW THEME)
DOZIER: Alright, here we go!
LANTERO: Synchronize your watches. 17 Minutes starts now!
(SOUND OF AIR HORNS)
DOZIER: The work of Sandia National Laboratories happens at multiple locations across the country, but their main campus is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Opened in 1945, Sandia uses science to detect, repel, defeat, and mitigate threats to America.
DOZIER: And one way Sandia addresses these threats is through robots! The labs’ annual “Western National Robot Rodeo” pits civilian and military bomb squad teams against the toughest challenges organizers can muster.
JAKE DEUEL: If they’re not cursing me by the end of the second day, we haven’t come up with hard enough scenarios for them.
DOZIER: Sandia’s Jake Deuel is one of the masterminds behind the rodeo. In partnership with Los Alamos National Lab, he devises tests of robot handling skill inspired by real-world situations that bomb squads might face on the job.
DEUEL: Even though we say this is a competition. What we really know what we’re giving these guys is training.
DOZIER: But that doesn’t make the battle for bragging rights any less fierce.
DEUEL: There’s a traveling trophy. And they hate giving that up so they always come the next year and compete to get it back.
LANTERO: The National Energy Technology Lab, or N-E-T-L, is arguably the oldest national lab. It got its start back in 1910, with a focus on improving coal mine safety. While the lab’s portfolio has expanded to include natural gas, oil, and other energy issues, some of their most interesting research is still focused on coal.
ALVIN: My name is Maryanne Alvin, and I currently serve as the the technology manager for Rare Earth Elements here at NETL.
LANTERO: Contrary to their name, Rare earth elements aren’t actually very rare. They’re called that because they don’t exist in large quantities in one single place, but they’re incredibly useful.
ALVIN: Our cellphones, our mp3 players, our computers
LANTERO: ...electric car engines, satellites -- all kinds of things use rare earth elements. And one place you can find them is in coal.
ALVIN: We’re looking into extracting those particular elements, which are in very very low concentrations, from those coal materials.
LANTERO: This is called liberating or freeing the rare earth elements. After all, you can’t spell free without R-E-E.
DOZIER: Founded in 1962, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Silicon Valley is our nation’s premier ultrafast science facility. How ultrafast? SLAC measures things in one really, really tiny unit of time called a femtosecond.
MIKE DUNNE: It’s an incredibly short period of time -- almost unimaginable. It’s the timescale on which atoms make friends or part friends with each other to form molecules or break apart molecules, and it’s the basis of all of chemistry and all of biology.
DOZIER: Mike Dunne is the director of the LCLS, SLAC’s ultra-powerful X-ray laser.
MIKE DUNNE: It’s a two-mile-long facility that delivers bursts of light just a few femtoseconds long -- that’s just a thousandth of a millionth of a millionth of a second.
DOZIER: Scientists are using the LCLS to reveal some of nature’s most closely guarded secrets
MIKE DUNNE: How do all the plants on Earth absorb sunlight and convert that light to energy? It turns out those processes are incredibly difficult to understand, and just taking static pictures of the atoms and the molecules is not enough -- you’ve got to make movies.
DOZIER: Mike didn’t have much sympathy for our 60-second time limit.
MIKE DUNNE: That’s right (laughs). A minute? That’s forever!
LANTERO: Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, or PPPL, has been studying nuclear fusion since it opened in Princeton, New Jersey in 1961. Fusion is created using plasma, the fourth element of matter, and it’s the process that powers the sun and the stars.
ANDREW ZWICKER: One of the grand challenges of humankind is to create a star here on earth.
LANTERO: That’s Andrew Zwicker, a plasma physicist at PPPL, and he’s talking about the lab’s National Spherical Torus Experiment, which uses powerful magnets to contain plasma that is seven times hotter than the sun!
LANTERO: And fusion is an incredibly efficient source of energy. While an oil-burning power plant uses multiple super-tankers of oil in a year...
ZWICKER: The fuel for a fusion reactor, when it eventually works, could fit on the back of just a regular pickup truck.
LANTERO: How is it so efficient?
ZWICKER: It’s E=MC² in the end.
ZWICKER: It really is! It all comes down to that one way or the other.
DOZIER: In 1943, Los Alamos National Lab was site Y of the Manhattan Project. Its single purpose was to design and build the first atomic bomb. National security remains its primary mission, but like so many National Labs, its scientific portfolio has grown a lot. Some of that work has very real implications for the lab and its community, like Rod Linn’s research on wildfire.
ROD LINN: People that live in Los Alamos and in New Mexico in general are very familiar with the risk it poses to us.
DOZIER: Rod’s team is using computer modeling to unlock the answers to questions that could help save lives.
ROD LINN: How does the fire influence the atmosphere right around it? That actually can have a huge impact on how the fire spreads.
DOZIER: They’ve worked with the National Forest Service to model how fires move from moment to moment -- and even tree to tree -- using Los Alamos supercomputers.
ROD LINN: Without that huge computing power, you just can’t do that that physics-based computation that gets at those resolutions.
LANTERO: Surrounded by world-class research institutions in the Chicago area, Argonne National Lab’s history of multidisciplinary science dates back to the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Its diverse efforts have included collaboration with experts all over the world -- sometimes in unexpected places.
PETER MAKOVICKY: My name is Peter Makovicky and I’m the associate curator for dinosaurs at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
LANTERO: Peter’s museum recently began working with Argonne to study a… unique… test subject.
MAKOVICKY: SUE is the largest and most complete T-rex skeleton yet discovered.
LANTERO: They’re hoping the lab’s Advanced Photon Source can shed some light on a question that has stumped paleontologists for over a century.
MAKOVICKY: Probably the same question most 5 or 6 year old kids ask themselves the first time they see T-Rex. What were those silly little arms for?
LANTERO: Using extremely bright X-rays generated by the lab’s synchrotron, researchers can examine the microscopic structure of SUE’s forearms without damaging them. The research is ongoing, but hopefully we’ll have an answer in time for the next Jurassic Park film.
DOZIER: Brookhaven National Lab opened in 1947 on Long Island, New York. For 70 years, the lab has been unraveling the mysteries of the universe with particle accelerators, x-ray light sources and a host of brilliant scientific minds. All that brainpower and technology in one place can lead to surprising inventions -- like one of the very first video games.
PETER TAKACS: There’s a horizontal line for the court, then there’s a little vertical line for the net, and then there’s the dot for the ball that moves according to how you hit it.
DOZIER: That’s physicist Peter Takacs describing “Tennis for Two,” which made its debut at Brookhaven in 1958. The game was the brainchild of William Higinbotham, then head of the lab’s instrumentation division.
TAKACS: Because we had all this high-tech equipment, it was very easy for him to put together something that was unique.
DOZIER: Higinbotham’s creation entertained visitors to the lab 14 years before “Pong” hit arcades Peter and his team actually recreated the game for the lab’s 50th anniversary; just don’t expect him to set any high scores.
TAKACS: Me? No (laughs). I don’t play video games.
LANTERO: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or PNNL, describes its mission as discovery in action. The lab has been around since 1965 and works in an array of fields including basic science, national security, energy systems, and environmental protection. And also, musical innovation.
In the 1970s, Jim Russell, a scientist at PNNL, developed something you’ve probably never heard of, but almost definitely used. It’s called optical digital recording, and it’s a way of storing information as a track of dots about 1 micron in diameter. A micron is one-millionth of a meter, so we’re talking tiny.
This method of recording became the basis for CD and later DVD technology.
So the next time you dust off your Star Wars DVDs, or opt for a CD instead of a podcast, you can thank Pacific Northwest National Lab.
DOZIER: Founded in 1967 outside Chicago, Illinois, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory -- Fermilab for short -- is one of the top particle physics laboratories in the world. What are we made of? How did the universe begin? For 50 years, Fermilab scientists have explored these questions and more.
DOZIER: But Fermilab also has an artistic side that dates back to its very first director, Robert Wilson. Here’s Fermilab archivist and historian Valerie Higgins.
VALERIE HIGGINS: One of the things that was going to be very important to him was to create an environment that was beautiful and inspiring to the people that came here.
DOZIER: Wilson’s eleventh hire was artist Angela Gonzales, who created beautiful covers for lab publications, event posters...
HIGGINS: she also designed Fermilab’s iconic logo.
DOZIER: Gonzales passed away in 2015, but her thirty years of artwork live on in an exhibit at the Fermilab Art Gallery this summer.
HIGGINS: The scientists here are trying to understand these very fundamental building blocks of the universe -- I think the artwork reminds people of the larger significance of the work that’s being done here.
LANTERO: Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California is responsible for securing and maintaining America’s nuclear deterrent. For more than 65 years, its research has helped protect us from lots of different threats -- not all of them here on Earth. Livermore Lab physicist Paul Miller is part of a multi-lab effort to defend the planet from potentially hazardous asteroids.
PAUL MILLER: The earth has been struck by asteroids in the past and will be struck by asteroids in the future.
LANTERO: Paul explained that with enough advance warning, it’s possible to alter the course of Earth-bound asteroids in a few ways -- one of which is with a nuclear explosive.
MILLER: It’s not used to blast the thing up into pieces. It vaporizes a bunch of the surface when it goes off, gives it a little push.
LANTERO: Livermore Lab is working to understand how asteroids react to that kind of “nuclear nudge.” It’s cutting-edge work that ties into the lab’s expertise in nuclear science, computer science and more.
MILLER: In the course of doing it, we realized, “Wow, this is even better than we thought.”
DOZIER: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab was founded in 1931 by visionary UC Berkeley physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, who won the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the cyclotron. Today the lab carries on that tradition of scientific excellence, with world-class facilities and award-winning researchers -- like Kristin Persson. She heads up the lab’s Materials Project: a cutting-edge materials science effort with an ambitious goal...
KRISTIN PERSSON: to calculate all the different materials that are possible and existing in the world and give that data to the world, for free. So, the “Google of materials,” basically.
DOZIER: The Materials Project brings together experts to crunch massive amounts of data about every inorganic compound on earth. Their database is up to nearly 70,000 compounds and growing.
DOZIER: These new materials could hold the key to longer-lasting batteries, more efficient solar panels, or tougher composites. And Berkeley Lab is making it easier than ever to find the right material for the job.
PERSSON: Oh, it’s amazing when you get feedback from the community that are using our database and saying, like, I was able to reproduce within 15 minutes what usually took me months and months to do.
LANTERO: In Newport News, Virginia, the youngest National Lab is studying the oldest parts of the universe. Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, also known as Jefferson Lab, uses powerful electron beams to peer inside the heart of the atom. The lab’s latest quest is to unlock the mystery of the “universal glue” that holds together all visible matter.
ALLISON LUNG: There’s a primary question that has never been answered about the Standard Model of particle physics, which is why you can never find one quark alone.
LANTERO: That’s Allison Lung, director of the project to double the maximum energy of the lab’s electron accelerator. The upgrade brings the racetrack-shaped facility up from 6 billion to 12 billion electron volts, opening a new window into the subatomic world.
LUNG: This is a new capability, nowhere else in the world can do this -- and it provides a sweet spot to study the glue that holds together all of the quarks that are the fundamental building blocks of matter. it’s an extremely exciting time for the entire community.
DOZIER: Environmental stewardship is a big part of the mission at Savannah River National Lab. It was created in 1951, first to support the nation’s Cold War efforts at the Department of Energy’s site in rural South Carolina -- and then to help clean it up. John Bobbit, an engineer at Savannah River, explains.
JOHN BOBBITT: We've got five production reactors at the Savannah River Site, all built around 1952, and they’ve all been out of production since the end of the Cold War.
DOZIER: The nuclear contamination in these huge structures is being locked into place.
BOBBITT: It's essentially the equivalent of filling each of these buildings with four Home Depot's full of concrete.
DOZIER: But they can be really complicated on the inside, with only some of the details of the buildings recorded in 60-year-old construction plans.
BOBBITT: you have to search through these countless drawings, about 10,000 drawings defining each building.
DOZIER: So the lab has had to get creative. It’s now using virtual reality to map out reactors, so workers can identify hazards and plan work in a simulated 3D environment. It’s serious work to protect their employees, but it could have other applications...
BOBBITT: The result, really, looks like it would be great in some zombie apocalypse game, to be honest.
LANTERO: For over fifty years, the U.S. Navy has been testing the technology that powers nuclear submarines in a place you might not expect.
SEAN O’KELLY: Well, we’re in the middle of the desert in Idaho.
LANTERO: Sean O’Kelly is the Associate Director of the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Lab, or INL, in southeastern Idaho, which is widely known as the birthplace of nuclear energy. So it made sense for the Navy to test their early prototypes there -- even if there wasn’t a beach nearby.
O’KELLY: It was actually floating in a pool, so they could evaluate how the reactor performed on a ship that was moving.
LANTERO: The Navy aren’t the only ones who partner with the lab on nuclear research. In fact, the Advanced Test Reactor, which Sean oversees, is booked up with diverse nuclear science experiments years in advance.
O’KELLY: We work really hard to accommodate as many researchers as possible. And in some cases we have to juggle to fit all the experimenters in.
LANTERO: The Advanced Test Reactor just turned 50 -- proving that age is really just a number.
O’KELLY: If anything, fifty years old, and the pace is picking up.
DOZIER: Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee got its start during the Manhattan Project, demonstrating that plutonium could be produced for use in nuclear weapons. Since then, Oak Ridge has gone from a “Secret City” to a beacon of open science. And it still works with plutonium -- but for a much different purpose.
WHAM: The Curiosity rover, and the Voyager, and the Viking, and the Pluto flyby -- I mean, there’s things that just would not be able to happen without this power source.
DOZIER: That’s Bob Wham. He’s talking about plutonium-238, a specialized radioactive fuel that NASA uses to keep spacecraft warm and functioning in deep space. Problem is, no one’s been making it since the Cold War -- except Oak Ridge.
WHAM: We are the only place that’s actually started up the production process.
DOZIER: In 2015, Bob’s team produced the first new plutonium-238 in decades. They’re working to ensure our nation has the fuel it needs to keep exploring far into space -- and far into the future. All in a day’s work, right Bob?
WHAM: Well, yeah, I guess you could say that (laughs). It’s a long day, though.
LANTERO: You might expect scientists to be searching for the fourth dimension, but what about studying the second dimension? At Ames Laboratory, located on the campus of Iowa State University, scientists focus on all aspects of material science, from big to teeny tiny.
MICHAEL TRINGIDES: The smallest thing we can see is single atoms.
LANTERO: That’s Michael Tringides. He and fellow researcher Pat Thiel study behaviors of atoms in substances such as graphene that are only one atom thick: meaning they’re truly two-dimensional.
TRINGIDES: Not only can we see them, but actually we can move them around, we can manipulate them.
LANTERO: What is it you move them with? Very tiny tweezers?
TRINGIDES: One way is to actually push them with the tip because this microscope has a very, very sharp tip.
LANTERO: And the other way is to watch how the atoms interact with each other. Michael says the goal of all this microscopic work is to one day be able to make super-small components for computers and cellphones.
TRINGIDES: Super-small and also super-fast.
DOZIER: The National Renewable Energy Lab, NREL for short, has been advancing energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable power technologies for 40 years. At its campus in Golden, Colorado, the lab doesn’t just explore these technologies -- it puts them to work.
STEVE HAMMOND: Exactly...we talk at NREL about “walking the talk.”
DOZIER: That’s Steve Hammond. As the director of the Computational Science Center at NREL, he oversees the lab’s Peregrine supercomputer. Not only is it super-fast and energy-efficient, but it’s also the main source of heat for the surrounding buildings.
DOZIER: NREL partnered with HP and Intel on the innovative liquid-cooled design, which moves heat 1,000 times more effectively than air.
HAMMOND: We actually save about a million dollars a year in operating expenses that we would otherwise have to pay to power the computer and to heat the building.
DOZIER: It’s an example of collaboration and forward-thinking design.
HAMMOND: I think it’s a great success story for DOE. we operate the world’s most energy efficient data center, and it did not cost us more money to build that.
(SOUND OF CHEERING)
DOZIER: We did it!
LANTERO: 17 minutes!
DOZIER: Take it away, Secretary Perry.
RICK PERRY: Alright, nice job, Matt and Allison. I never had a doubt you could do all 17 labs in 17 minutes.
This is Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. You just heard about some of the incredible work that makes our National Labs the crown jewels of science in America.
I’ve had the tremendous privilege to travel to several of these Labs. I’ve met the men and women who work there, and I’ve seen firsthand the awe-inspiring power of their efforts.
They tackle some of the toughest scientific challenges in the universe, and develop mind-boggling technologies. And they keep us safe, through research that defends us from terrorism and keeps our nuclear stockpile secure, modern, and effective.
There’s nothing in the world like our 17 National Labs. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of the team here at the Department of Energy and to work with our amazing National Labs.
LANTERO: You can learn about the amazing work all 17 National Labs are doing on our website, energy.gov/nationallabs. There you’ll find links to their websites, interactive maps and content we didn’t have time to cover in the show.
DOZIER: If you have questions about this episode or any other episode you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @ENERGY. If you’re enjoying Direct Current, help us spread the word! Tell your friends about the show, and leave us a rating or review on iTunes. We appreciate your feedback.
LANTERO: There are lots of people to thank who helped make this episode possible. So here they are in no particular order.
DOZIER: Bob Wham, Kristin Persson, Sean O’Kelly, Rod Linn, Valerie Higgins, Mike Dunne, Peter Takacs, Jake Deuel, Allison Lung, Steve Hammond, John Bobbitt, Paul Miller, and Peter Makovicky.
LANTERO: Mary Anne Alvin, Andrew Zwicker, and Michael Tringides. And everyone at the labs, NNSA, and the offices of science, fossil energy, energy efficiency and renewable energy, and environmental management who made this possible, these may’ve been just one minute stories, but they certainly weren’t easy.
DOZIER: Thank you to Taylor Gray at Transition Music, Thank you to our summer intern Alexandra Bass, To the Public Affairs team, many thanks for all your support including Kayla Hensley and Bob Haus.
LANTERO: Finally, a very special thank you to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry for helping us spread the word and reminding us why we ALL have the coolest job.
DOZIER: Direct Current is produced by Simon Edelman, Allison Lantero and me Matt Dozier. Art and design by Cort Kreer. With support from Paul Lester, Ernie Ambrose and Atiq Warraich.
LANTERO: We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.
PERRY: Thanks for listening to this installment of Direct Current.