berkeley labs

Seeing a supernovae within hours of the explosion

For the first time ever, scientists have gathered direct evidence of a rare Wolf-Rayet star being linked to a specific type of stellar explosion known as a Type IIb supernova. Peter Nugent of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says they caught this star – a whopping 360 million light years away – just a few hours after it exploded.

Hear more about this discovery →

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Capturing Love In The Lab

One of the great mysteries in life is what makes a successful, loving relationship.  

The Berkeley Psychophysiology lab (BPL) studies the emotional quality of a couple’s interactions — how they express emotion, how they respond to their partner’s emotions, and how they support each other in times of need. 

Through their research, they hope to find the “secret sauce” that determines whether one marriage is happy and another one is miserable.  

There have been long-term studies of marriages before, but most have been based on questionnaires. Researchers would mail a packet of questions to couples every year and get their views about what’s making their marriage work or not work.

What’s unusual about the research at BPL is that they bring marriages into the lab. 

“Our thought was that to understand a marriage and the emotions of a marriage, we couldn’t just ask people what they felt, or just rely on questionnaires. We had to actually observe marital behavior and look at not only the visible behavior, but we had to also look under the skin and measure their physiology,” explained the lab’s director, Robert Levenson. 

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Heart On A Chip Beats To Test Drugs

The gifs above show the newest in an expanding selection of living cells grown in devices to model human organs. This one comes from the University of California, Berkeley, where researchers have grown human heart cells derived from adult stem cells in a one-inch silicone housing. The system is being developed to test how different drugs and compounds would work on the actual organ. 

The top gif shows the heart cells beating normally. The gif below it shows the cells after they have been exposed to isoproterenol, a drug used to treat several heart problems including bradycardia, a condition in which the heart rate is too slow. The cells in the lower gif beat significantly faster 30 minutes after coming into contact with the drug.

“Ultimately, these chips could replace the use of animals to screen drugs for safety and efficacy,” said bioengineering professor Kevin Healy. This would be a significant improvement over the current model used in the pharmaceutical pipeline since the biology of animal test subjects differs significantly from humans. Such differences lead to inaccurate findings about new drugs’ efficacy and toxicity once used on people.

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Back to the Future with Roman Architectural Concrete | Berkeley Lab
A key discovery to understanding Roman architectural concrete that has stood the test of time and the elements for nearly two thousand years has been made by researchers using beams of X-rays at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source.

Why has Roman concrete lasted so long?
It turns out that concrete made with volcanic ash is actually self-healing.

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For the First Time, Direct Observations Show Increasing Greenhouse Effect

The rising concentration of carbon dioxide at the Earth’s surface is increasing the amount of heat the air can absorb, measurements taken by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab have shown. 

This phenomenon, they say, is being caused by rising CO2 levels from burning fossil fuels and fires, and the data fits with models that take into account the effect of human activity on the atmosphere.

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere to absorb what the Earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation,” said Daniel Feldman, a Berkeley Lab project scientist who specializes in comparing climate models with actual instrument observations. He is the lead author of a paper published in the journal Nature on Feb. 25.

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In Significant Advance for Artificial Photosynthesis, a Machine and Living Bacteria Work Together to Make Fuel

Scientists say they have merged living organisms with nanotechnology to mimic the photosynthesis plants use to make energy.  

Blending chemistry, biology and materials science, the team from the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory created a living-synthetic hybrid system. The process brings together nanowires and bacteria (seen in the image above) to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide in the air into valuable chemicals like liquid fuel, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Like plants, the system uses solar power to make complex molecules from simple ones. In contrast to the carbohydrates and oxygen that are the product of natural photosynthesis, the new device converts CO2 into acetate, which is the building block for a number of industrially useful chemicals.

“We believe our system is a revolutionary leap forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis,” said Peidong Yang, a Berkeley Lab chemist who was one of the project leaders. “Our system has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way, rather than extracting them from deep below the ground.”

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Researchers map quantum vortices inside superfluid helium nanodroplets

First ever snapshots of spinning nanodroplets reveal surprising features

Scientists have, for the first time, characterized so-called quantum vortices that swirl within tiny droplets of liquid helium. The research, led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), the University of Southern California, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, confirms that helium nanodroplets are in fact the smallest possible superfluidic objects and opens new avenues to study quantum rotation.

“The observation of quantum vortices is one of the most clear and unique demonstrations of the quantum properties of these microscopic objects,” says Oliver Gessner, senior scientist in the Chemical Sciences Division at Berkeley Lab. Gessner and colleagues, Andrey Vilesov of the University of Southern California and Christoph Bostedt of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford, led the multi-facility and multi-university team that published the work this week in Science.

The finding could have implications for other liquid or gas systems that contain vortices, says USC’s Vilesov. “The quest for quantum vortices in superfluid droplets has stretched for decades,” he says. “But this is the first time they have been seen in superfluid droplets.”

Superfluid helium has long captured scientist’s imagination since its discovery in the 1930s. Unlike normal fluids, superfluids have no viscosity, a feature that leads to strange and sometimes unexpected properties such as crawling up the walls of containers or dripping through barriers that contained the liquid before it transitioned to a superfluid.

Helium superfluidity can be achieved when helium is cooled to near absolute zero (zero kelvin or about -460 degrees F). At this temperature, the atoms within the liquid no longer vibrate with heat energy and instead settle into a calm state in which all atoms act together in unison, as if they were a single particle.

For decades, researchers have known that when superfluid helium is rotated–in a little spinning bucket, say–the rotation produces quantum vortices, swirls that are regularly spaced throughout the liquid. But the question remained whether anyone could see this behavior in an isolated, nanoscale droplet. If the swirls were there, it would confirm that helium nanodroplets, which can range in size from tens of nanometers to microns, are indeed superfluid throughout and that the motion of the entire liquid drop is that of a single quantum object rather than a mixture of independent particles.

But measuring liquid flow in helium nanodroplets has proven to be a serious challenge. “The way these droplets are made is by passing helium through a tiny nozzle that is cryogenically cooled down to below 10 Kelvin,” says Gessner. “Then, the nanoscale droplets shoot through a vacuum chamber at almost 200 meters-per-second. They live once for a few milliseconds while traversing the experimental chamber and then they’re gone. How do you show that these objects, which are all different from one another, have quantum vortices inside?”

The researchers turned to a facility at SLAC called the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), a DOE Office of Science user facility that is the world’s first x-ray free-electron laser. This laser produces very short light pulses, lasting just a ten-trillionth of a second, which contain a huge number of high-energy photons. These intense x-ray pulses can effectively take snapshots of single, ultra-fast, ultra-small objects and phenomena.

“With the new x-ray free electron laser, we can now image phenomenon and look at processes far beyond what we could imagine just a decade ago,” says Bostedt of SLAC. “Looking at the droplets gave us a beautiful glimpse into the quantum world. It really opens the door to fascinating sciences.”

In the experiment, the researchers blasted a stream of helium nanodroplets across the x-ray laser beam inside a vacuum chamber; a detector caught the pattern that formed when the x-ray light diffracted off the drops.

The diffraction patterns immediately revealed that the shape of many droplets were not spheres, as was previously assumed. Instead, they were oblate. Just as the Earth’s rotation causes it to bulge at the equator, so too do rotating nanodroplets expand around the middle and flatten at the top and bottom.

But the vortices themselves are invisible to x-ray diffraction, so the researchers used a trick of adding xenon atoms to the droplets. The xenon atoms get pulled into the vortices and cluster together.

“It’s similar to pulling the plug in a bathtub and watching the kids’ toys gather in the vortex,” says Gessner. The xenon atoms diffract x-ray light much stronger than the surrounding helium, making the regular arrays of vortices inside the droplet visible. In this way, the researchers confirmed that vortices in nanodroplets behave as those found in larger amounts of rotating superfluid helium.

Armed with this new information, the researchers were able to determine the rotational speed of the nanodroplets. They were surprised to find that the nanodroplets spin up to 100,000 times faster than any other superfluid helium sample ever studied in a laboratory.

Moreover, while normal liquid drops will change shape as they spin faster and faster–to resemble a peanut or multi-lobed globule, for instance–the researchers saw no evidence of such shapeshifting in the helium nanodroplets. “Essentially, we’re exploring a new regime of quantum rotation with this matter,” Gessner says.

“It’s a new kind of matter in a sense because it is a self-contained isolated superfluid,” he adds. “It’s just all by itself, held together by its own surface tension. It’s pretty perfect to study these system


IMAGE…This is an illustration of analysis of superfluid helium nanodroplets. Droplets are emitted via a cooled nozzle (upper right) and probed with x-ray from the free-electron laser. The multicolored pattern (upper left) represents a diffraction pattern that reveals the shape of a droplet and the presence of quantum vortices such as those represented in the turquoise circle with swirls (bottom center).

Credit: Felix P. Sturm and Daniel S. Slaughter, Berkeley Lab.

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Life in the lab with the germ-whisperer

Sarah Richardson’s childhood dream was to meet an extraterrestrial, and now, she gets to work with one of the most alien forms of life — that just happens to live in a petri dish.

Self-dubbed the “Germ Wrangler”, she’s a molecular biologist training bacteria to make biofuels and medicines at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

And, as one of the few women of color in this STEM field, the number one feedback she gets is that she doesn’t look like a scientist.

“When I hear that from the children who look like me, that really breaks my heart,” says Richardson.

Richardson attributes her own success to good mentors, including a father who allowed her to disassemble his computer, and a scientists who accepted her as a lab intern while she was still a high school student.

Now, she’s also making sure that she’s doing her share in mentoring and galvanizing young women to aspire to a career in the sciences.

Read more about how Sarah wrangles germs in the lab

$2 Do-It-Yourself Solar Lamp Brings Better Light To Poor

by Michael Keller

When the sun goes down on almost 1.3 billion people around the world, the only respite from the darkness is fire. These are the people who have no access to electricity. If children want to study, or adults want to remain productive, or families want to sit and talk, most must do it by light of a flame.

But light sources like wood, candles, or hydrocarbons like kerosene oil, which was burnt at the rate of 38.7 million gallons a day in 2010, are far from the best solution. Combustion is dirty, releases toxic chemicals and can be expensive.

“A fifth of the world’s population earns on the order of $1 per day and lacks access to grid electricity,” wrote Evan Mills, a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab staff scientist, in the 2012 technical report Health Impacts of Fuel-Based Lighting. “They pay a far higher proportion of their income for illumination than those in wealthy countries, obtaining light with fuel-based sources, primarily kerosene lanterns. The same population experiences adverse health and safety risks from these same lighting fuels.”

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An artist’s concept of the new measurement of the size of the Universe, based on data taken from the Baryonic Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey project.

The gray spheres show the pattern of the “baryon acoustic oscillations” from the early Universe. Galaxies today have a slight tendency to align on the spheres (the alignment is greatly exaggerated in this illustration). By comparing the size of the spheres (the white line) to the predicted value, astronomers can determine to one-percent accuracy how far away the galaxies are.

Combined with recent measures of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) and supernova measures of accelerating expansion, the BOSS results suggest that dark energy – the force thought to be driving universal expansion – is a cosmological constant whose strength does not vary in space or time. This finding doesn’t quite line up with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and researchers say that “understanding the physical cause of the accelerated expansion remains one of the most interesting problems in modern physics.”

The BOSS data “also provides one of the best-ever determinations of the curvature of space. The answer is, it’s not curved much. One of the reasons we care is that a flat universe has implications for whether the universe is infinite,” says David Schlegel, a physicist from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

He says this research tells us that while we can’t say with certainty that it will never come to an end, it’s pretty likely that the universe continues on in space forever. 

Quasars tell the story of how fast the young universe expanded

For those who saw the Cosmos episode on William Herschel describing telescopes as time machines, here is a clear example of that. By examining 140,000 objects called quasars (galaxies with an active black hole at their centers), astronomers have charted the expansion rate of the universe — not now, but 10.8 billion years ago.

This is the most precise measurement ever of the universe’s expansion rate at any point in time, the science teams said, with the calculation showing the universe was expanding by 1% every 44 million years at that time. (That figure is to 2% precision, the researchers added.)

“If we look back to the Universe when galaxies were three times closer together than they are today, we’d see that a pair of galaxies separated by a million light-years would be drifting apart at a speed of 68 kilometers per second as the Universe expands,” stated Andreu Font-Ribera of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led one of the two analyses.

The researchers used a telescope called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The discovery was made during Sloan’s Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, or BOSS, whose aim has been to figure out the expansion and acceleration of the universe.

“BOSS determines the expansion rate at a given time in the Universe by measuring the size of baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO), a signature imprinted in the way matter is distributed, resulting from sound waves in the early Universe,” the Sloan Digital Sky Survey stated. “This imprint is visible in the distribution of galaxies, quasars, and intergalactic hydrogen throughout the cosmos.”

Image credit: Zosia Rostomian (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and Andreu Font-Ribera (BOSS Lyman-alpha team, Berkeley Lab.)

Core Sample Of Universe Illuminates Cosmic Web Almost 11 Billion Light Years Away

by Michael Keller

Astrophysicists have developed a new sensing technique to map a section of the universe 10.8 billion light years from Earth, the first time such detail has been seen over this immense distance. Peering through that much space has opened a portal to get a clearer view of what our adolescent universe looked like 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

Using extremely faint light from 24 densely packed galaxies almost 11 billion light years away from our planet, the team was able to discern lower and higher densities of hydrogen gas in between the distant celestial bodies and us. Their work has illuminated the physical structure of the cosmic web, the tangled network upon which all matter is arranged, in one large region of the sky. 

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Robocabs Will Fight Climate Change

The first vehicles capable of driving themselves at highway speeds are expected to start hitting roads in Europe and the U.S. in the next few years. 

In 2016, Mercedes is expected to launch a pilot program on a stretch of Germany’s famous no-speed-limit autobahn between Munich and Berlin in which specially equipped cars pilot themselves. Companies from Tesla to GM, Nissan and Google anticipate marketing their own robotic cars in the coming years. BI Intelligence expects 10 million cars to be operating by 2020 that have at least one self-driving feature installed. In another forecast, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicted that three-quarters of all the world’s cars in 2040 will be autonomous.

There are big advantages to switching over driving duties to computers–in just one report, KPMG estimates that robot chauffeurs will lead to 2,500 fewer deaths on UK roads between 2014 and 2030. Noting that alcohol was involved in 39 percent of all motorist fatalities in 2011, a RAND Corporation report argued that a switch to computer drivers from impaired humans alone would represent a “dramatic improvement in roadway safety.”

Now a new study by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab says even more benefits can be expected when some of those robots start replacing taxi drivers. A cab fleet made of electric, autonomous vehicles in 2030 would emit up to 82 percent fewer greenhouse gases than a hybrid, privately owned car. Such electric robots are forecast to produce 90 percent less greenhouse gases than a gasoline-powered private vehicle made in 2014. 

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NEXT-GENERATION DARK MATTER EXPERIMENTS GET THE GREEN LIGHT

Berkeley Lab to lead new underground project in hunt for dark matter.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation announced support for a suite of upcoming experiments to search for dark matter that will be many times more sensitive than those currently deployed.

These so-called Generation 2 Dark Matter Experiments include the LUX-Zeplin (LZ) experiment, an international collaboration formed in 2012, managed by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab) and to be located at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in South Dakota. With the announcement, the DOE and NSF officially endorsed LZ and two other dark matter experiments.

“The great news is we’ve been given the go-ahead,” says William Edwards, LZ project manager and engineer in Berkeley Lab Physics Division. “We’re looking forward to making what has been a proposal into a real, operational, first-rate experiment.”

The LZ experiment was first proposed two years ago to search for and advance our understanding of dark matter, a mysterious substance that makes up roughly 27 percent of the universe. The experiment will build on the current dark matter experiment at SURF called the Large Underground Xenon detector, or LUX.

Dark matter, so named because it doesn’t emit or absorb light, leaves clues about its presence via gravity: it affects the orbital velocities of galaxies in clusters and distorts light emitted from background objects in a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. But direct detection of dark matter has so far been elusive.

Physicists believe dark matter could be made of difficult-to-detect particles called Weakly Interacting Massive Particles or WIMPs, which usually pass through ordinary matter without leaving a trace. The current LUX experiment consists of a one-third ton liquid xenon detector that sits deep underground where it is shielded from cosmic rays and poised to find WIMPs. When one of these particles passes through the xenon detector, it should occasionally produce an observable flash of light.

“When completed, the LZ experiment will be the world’s most sensitive experiment for WIMPs over a large range of WIMP masses,” says Harry Nelson, physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara and current spokesperson of the LZ Collaboration. The international LZ collaboration includes scientists and engineers from 29 institutions in the United States, Portugal, Russia and the United Kingdom.

The next-generation detector, LZ, will consist of a 7-ton liquid xenon target and an active system for suppressing the rate of non-WIMP signals known as background events, both located inside the same water – tank shield used by LUX. This significant increase in detection capability will increase the sensitivity to WIMPs by more than a hundred times.

Another DOE- and NSF-approved project called SuperCDMS-SNOLAB will also be looking for WIMPs, but with a focus on those that are lighter and less energetic than those primarily detectable by the LZ detector. A third project called ADMX-Gen2 is tuned specifically for axions, and will watch for them by monitoring signals stimulated by a strong magnetic field.

“By picking a combination of these WIMP detection techniques that balance the potential sensitivity, the technical readiness, and the cost, the idea is to have the broadest dark-matter detection program possible,” says Murdock “Gil” Gilchriese, LZ project scientist and physicist in Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division.

“This is great news in the hunt for dark matter,” says Kevin Lesko, senior physicist with LUX/LZ, SURF operations manager and from Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division. “With our new detector at SURF, we plan on getting the experiment up and running by 2018 and will continue searching with LUX in the interim.”