OSTIblog Posts by Kathy Chambers

Kathy Chambers's picture
Senior STI Specialist, Information International Associates, Inc.

Thorium – An Element with Promise

Published on May 09, 2016

Mårten Eskil Winge - Tor’s Fight with the Giants, via Wikimedia CommonsMårten Eskil Winge - Tor’s Fight with the Giants, via Wikimedia Commons

Thorium (232Th), the chemical element named after the Norse god of thunder, has a history that is as colorful as its namesake.  Although discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius, thorium had no known useful applications until 1885, when it was used in gas mantles to light up the streets across Europe and North America.  Then in 1898, physicist Marie Curie and chemist Gerhard Schmidt observed thorium to be radioactive, and subsequent applications for thorium declined due to safety and environmental concerns.  The scientific community would later find that the element thorium held promise for the planet to have clean, safe, cheap, and plentiful nuclear power as an alternative fuel to plutonium-based nuclear power plants. 


Climate Change Research 24/7

Published on Apr 11, 2016

Image credit: ARM ProgramImage credit: ARM Program

One of the research programs managed by the Department of Energy (DOE) is the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Program, created in 1989 to address scientific uncertainties related to global climate change.  ARM's Climate Research Facility, a DOE scientific user facility, provides the world's most comprehensive 24/7 observational capabilities to obtain atmospheric data specifically for climate change research. The ARM facility includes fixed, mobile, and aerial sites that gather continuous measurements used to study the effects and interactions of sunlight, radiant energy, clouds, and aerosols and their impacts on the global climate system.  The ARM program serves as a model and a knowledge base for climate change research endeavors across the globe.


The Kondo Effect Phenomena

Published on Mar 22, 2016

Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) researcher Ignace Jarrige shown with the sample used in the magnetic refrigeration experiment. Courtesy BNLBrookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) researcher Ignace Jarrige shown with the sample used in the magnetic refrigeration experiment. Courtesy BNL

For more than 50 years, scientists around the world have attempted to understand the intriguing phenomena of the Kondo effect.  When magnetic impurities are added to non-magnetic host materials, their properties display unexpected, anomalous behavior as a result of the Kondo effect.  These dilute magnetic alloys, and their unusual behaviors are important tools for scientific research in topics such as ferromagnetism, superconductivity, and other solid-state phenomena.  The Kondo effect provides insight into the electronic properties of a wide variety of materials and opens doors to new discoveries. 


Shape-Memory Materials Magic

Published on Feb 23, 2016

Hubble Space Telescope Courtesy of NASAHubble Space Telescope Courtesy of NASA

Just like magic, shape-memory materials have the ability to be transformed into another shape and then return to their original shape—or in some cases even metamorphose into a third shape before returning to their original shape.  This transformation is possible because the crystalline structure of shape-memory alloys allows them to sense and respond to their environment.  Shape-memory transformation behavior can now be created by thermal, light, or chemical environments. Shape-memory alloys have been used by the research community for well over a decade to accomplish tasks that were not possible otherwise.   


2015 – A Good Year for Spintronics Research

Published on Jan 19, 2016

The flow of a magnetic property of electrons known as spin current from a magnetic material (blue), to a nonmagnetic material (red). Image courtesy SLAC National Accelerator LaboratoryThe flow of a magnetic property of electrons known as spin current from a magnetic material (blue), to a nonmagnetic material (red). Image courtesy SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Department of Energy (DOE) researchers and their collaborators continued to make significant progress throughout 2015 in the emerging field of spintronics, also known as magnetic electronics.  Spintronics could change conventional electronics by using the spin of electrons to store information in solid state devices rather than, or in addition to, the transport of the electrical charge of electrons.  This new technology addresses many of the challenges of conventional electronics because it allows for transfer of information from one place to another using much less energy, essentially generating no heat, and requiring little space.  The field of spintronics is rapidly advancing and opportunities at the frontiers of spintronics are immense.


A Stirling Engine Revival

Published on Dec 18, 2015

By Indian Institute of Technology, copy of image in Robert Stirling's patent of 1816. Wikimedia CommonsBy Indian Institute of Technology, copy of image in Robert Stirling's patent of 1816. Wikimedia Commons

A remarkable engine now called the Stirling engine was developed and patented in 1816 by a 25-year-old Scottish clergyman named Robert Stirling.  Stirling was devoted to the clergy but inherited a love of engineering from his father and his grandfather, who was the inventor of the threshing machine.  Some historians believe that Robert invented his new engine to replace the dangerous steam engines of that time.  Even though the Stirling engine was utilized in small, domestic projects, it was never developed for common use and was eventually overtaken by cheaper and more efficient versions of the steam engine and small, internal combustion engines.


Microbes: Engines of Life

Published on Dec 01, 2015

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryImage credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Microbes – bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae, and viruses – are the engines of life.  Microbiomes or microbe communities account for 60% of living matter and are the most diverse life form on earth.  The problem is that very little is understood about microbes and how they relate to our planet.  For a long time, microbes have had a bad reputation.  Bad microbes, better known as “germs,” have caused infectious diseases such as the bubonic plague, malaria, polio, HIV, and Ebola.  Advances in gene-sequencing technology have expanded our knowledge of microbiomes.  Once thought to be only harmful, scientists now know that we cannot live without microbes.   


Bendable Crystals – Blessings in Disguise

Published on Nov 03, 2015

Sometimes difficulties turn out to be blessings in disguise – especially in research.  An excellent example is the story of how crystals that were too bent for their intended purpose inspired the use of deliberately bent crystals to resolve properties of X-ray pulses. 

Image credit: Matt Beardsley, SLAC National Accelerator LaboratoryImage credit: Matt Beardsley, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Researchers at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) reported that custom ultra-thin silicon crystals were ordered for an instrument in an effort to split X-ray pulses from SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS).  Researchers needed near perfect crystals to obtain precise measurements on a pulse-by-pulse basis to correctly obtain the best results.  It was discovered that one batch of silicon crystal samples they received unfortunately had wrinkles, apparently bent during their processing.  Measuring the curvature led these researchers to an important breakthrough. When they sent LCLS pulses through a bent crystal, they were able to divert a small part of the light and break it into its component wavelengths for color analysis while the bulk of the light went downstream for experiments.


Quantum Chaos – A Launching Point for Discovery

Published on Oct 19, 2015

Image credit: NASAImage credit: NASA

Like a beautiful sunset, the wobble of the moon, or the formation of a cloud, simple systems we are familiar with cannot be predicted because they are sensitive to small variations in their present conditions.  This unpredictable behavior is called chaos.

Before the 20th century, these unpredictable behaviors were known to be consistent with classical or Newtonian theory, but we now know these theories are incomplete. Quantum theory has been found to account for a much wider range of phenomena, including atomic and smaller phenomena that classical theory got wrong, so quantum physics is thought to underlie all physical processes.  Yet it’s not immediately apparent how quantum physical laws allow for chaotic systems’ sensitivity to their initial conditions.  

Quantum chaos is the branch of physics that studies the relationship between quantum mechanics and classical chaos.  Researchers are taking the conditions that cause chaotic behavior in these simple systems and are studying them on the atomic level.  Quantum chaos is being used as a launching point for discovery and to create new models in the exotic, quantum world to further understand the familiar, classical models of physics throughout our universe.


The Legendary Richard Feynman

Published on Sep 25, 2015

Richard Feynman visits National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) December 1972. Fermilab photo 72-0910-04.Richard Feynman visits National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) December 1972. Fermilab photo 72-0910-04.Richard Phillips Feynman was one of the world’s great quantum physicists. He was best known for his research in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, and in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model.  Many of his theories and inventions, such as the Feynman diagrams and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), have evolved into techniques scientists use todayFeynman was able to think visually and invent problem-solving tools that forever altered the direction of theoretical physics.  His extraordinary genius along with his blunt, mischievous, and eccentric personality made him a legend.

Many of Feynman’s brilliant ideas were not readily accepted.  In the 1940s, Feynman introduced a graphical interpretation called Feynman diagrams to make sense of complex mathematical equations and visualize interactions among particles.  These diagrams offered a way to solve the most complex puzzles of theoretical physics at the time.  Yet when he first presented his diagrams at a prestigious computational seminar, attendees took the chalk right out of his hand.  Young scientists that adopted the diagrams had to use them in secret.  Feynman’s diagrams were gradually accepted and his theory of quantum physics and the Feynman diagrams earned him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.  Today, Feynman’s diagrams have continued to evolve and physicists rely on them worldwide.