Berkeley Lab’s Top 10 Science Stories of 2019

The breadth of science conducted by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is vast, spanning from fundamental questions about the nature of the universe to solutions for saving energy in our homes and offices.

Our 10 most popular news stories in 2019 reflect the scope of our scientific achievements this year, ranging from a new way to recycle plastic to spearheading a once-in-a-generation investment in water-treatment technologies.

Here are the most viewed stories at the Berkeley Lab News Center this year, followed by four Editor’s Picks:

  1. Cool Roofs Can Help Shield California’s Cities Against Heat Waves

Aerial view of white roofed homes and streets forming circular patterns; St. Petersburg, Florida, USA (Credit: Shutterstock)

This summer alone, intense heat waves have been to blame for at least 11 deaths in Japan, a record-breaking temperature of 45.9-degrees Celsius (or 115 F) in France, and a heat advisory affecting 147 million people on the U.S. East Coast. These extreme air temperatures can heat our bodies, causing sunstrokes or even organ damage. A new study by Berkeley Lab shows that if every building in California sported “cool” roofs by 2050, these roofs would help contribute to protecting urbanites from the consequences of these dangerous heatwaves. Full story here.

  1. Plastic Gets a Do-Over: Breakthrough Discovery Recycles Plastic From the Inside Out

Berkeley Lab scientists Peter Christensen, Kathryn Loeffler, and Brett Helms

Left to right: Peter Christensen, Kathryn Loeffler, and Brett Helms. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

Because plastics contain various additives, like dyes, fillers, or flame retardants, very few plastics can be recycled without loss in performance or aesthetics. Now a team of researchers at Berkeley Lab has designed a recyclable plastic that, like a Lego playset, can be disassembled into its constituent parts at the molecular level, and then reassembled into a different shape, texture, and color again and again without loss of performance or quality. The new material, called poly(diketoenamine), or PDK, was reported in the journal Nature Chemistry. Full story here.

  1. Dark Energy Instrument’s Lenses See the Night Sky for the First Time

This image was obtained the first night of observing with the DESI Commissioning Instrument on the Mayall Telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. (Credit: DESI Collaboration)

The dome of the Mayall Telescope near Tucson, Arizona, opened to the night sky on April 1, and starlight poured through the assembly of six large lenses that were carefully packaged and aligned for a new instrument that will capture light from tens of millions of galaxies and produce a 3D map of the universe. Just hours later, scientists produced the first focused images with these precision lenses, marking an important “first light” milestone for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI). Full story here.

  1. New Laws of Attraction: Scientists Print Magnetic Liquid Droplets

An array of 1 millimeter magnetic droplets. (Credit: Xubo Liu et al./Berkeley Lab)

What if you could make a magnetic device out of liquids? Using a modified 3D printer, a team of scientists at Berkeley Lab have done just that. Their findings, published in the journal Science, could lead to a revolutionary class of printable liquid devices for a variety of applications – from artificial cells that deliver targeted cancer therapies to flexible liquid robots that change their shape to adapt to their surroundings. Full story here.

  1. New $100M Innovation Hub to Accelerate R&D for a Secure Water Future

The National Alliance for Water Innovation, which is led by Berkeley Lab, has been awarded a five-year, $100-million Energy-Water Desalination Hub by DOE to address water security issues in the United States. The Hub will focus on early-stage research and development for energy-efficient and cost-competitive desalination technologies and for treating nontraditional water sources for various end-uses. Full story here.

  1. With Little Training, Machine-Learning Algorithms Can Uncover Hidden Scientific Knowledge

Photo - From left to right: Vahe Tshitoyan, Anubhav Jain, Leigh Weston, and John Dagdelen were among the participants in a text-mining project that used machine learning to analyze 3.3 million abstracts from materials science papers. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

Berkeley Lab researchers (from left) Vahe Tshitoyan, Anubhav Jain, Leigh Weston, and John Dagdelen. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

Sure, computers can be used to play grandmaster-level chess, but can they make scientific discoveries? Researchers at Berkeley Lab have shown that an algorithm with no training in materials science can scan the text of millions of papers and uncover new scientific knowledge. By analyzing relationships between words, the algorithm was able to predict discoveries of new thermoelectric materials years in advance and suggest as-yet unknown materials as candidates for thermoelectric materials. The findings were published in the journal Nature. Full story here.

  1. A Single Dose for Good Measure: How an Anti-Nuclear-Contamination Pill Could Also Help MRI Patients

Rebecca Abergel leads the BioActinide Chemistry Group in Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

Ever since they became commercially available in the 1980s, MRIs have long been considered to be safe. But in recent years, a growing number of MRI patients have reported feeling unusual symptoms – such as joint pain, body aches, and loss of memory – within days and sometimes even hours after an MRI scan. Some patients have also reported long-term chronic side effects such as kidney damage. Now Berkeley Lab chemist Rebecca Abergel and her team are developing a pill that could protect people from potential toxicity from the long-term retention of gadolinium, a critical ingredient in widely used contrast dyes for MRI scans. Full story here.

  1. Go With the Flow: Scientists Design Better Batteries for a Renewable Energy Grid

Miranda Baran, graduate student researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry (Credit: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab)

How do you store renewable energy so it’s there when you need it, even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing? Giant batteries designed for the electrical grid – called “flow batteries,” which store electricity in tanks of liquid electrolyte – could be the answer, but so far utilities have yet to find a cost-effective battery that can reliably power thousands of homes throughout a lifecycle of 10 to 20 years. Now, a battery membrane technology developed by researchers at Berkeley Lab may point to a solution. Full story here.

  1. Study Concludes Glassy Menagerie of Particles in Beach Sands Near Hiroshima Is Fallout Debris from A-Bomb Blast

    The Great Torii Gate, which is associated with the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine on Japan’s Miyajima Island, near the city of Hiroshima. (Credit: iStock/rweisswald)

Mario Wannier, a career geologist with expertise in studying tiny marine life, was sorting through samples of beach sand from Japan’s Motoujina Peninsula when he spotted something unexpected: a number of tiny, glassy spheres and other unusual objects. A study detailing this material concludes that it is A-bomb fallout from the destroyed city of Hiroshima. Full story here.

  1. Some Assembly Required: Scientists Piece Together the Largest U.S.-Based Dark Matter Experiment

    Photomultiplier tube arrays are prepared for LZ at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota. (Credit: Matt Kapust/SURF)

When complete, an underground dark matter-search experiment called LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) will be the largest, most sensitive U.S.-based experiment to directly detect theorized dark matter particles. Scientists have been trying for decades to solve the mystery of dark matter, which makes up about 85 percent of all matter in the universe, though we don’t know much about it. Full story here.

Editor’s Picks:

And let’s not forget these articles, which celebrate the International Year of the Periodic Table and spotlight Berkeley Lab’s commitment to training future scientists, and exemplify our strengths in biosciences.

16 Elements: Berkeley Lab’s Contributions to the Periodic Table

A century ago, the periodic table looked much different than it does today. It had empty spots for elements that had not yet been found, and ended at uranium (element 92), the heaviest known element until 1940. But scientists were dreaming about artificially creating even heavier elements. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, we looked at how far it’s come and where it’s headed. Full story here.

Berkeley Lab Team Uses Deep Learning to Help Veterans Administration Address Suicide Risks

Researchers in the Computational Research Division at Berkeley Lab are applying deep learning and analytics to electronic health record (EHR) data to help the Veterans Administration (VA) address a host of medical and psychological challenges affecting many of the nation’s 700,000 military veterans. The project is part of a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the VA that combines the VA’s vast EHR system with DOE’s high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, and data analytics resources. Full story here.

Getting Teens Hooked on STEM

First launched in 2008, iCLEM is a summer intensive program that immerses local Bay Area students in the biological sciences – and gives them a taste of day-to-day life as a scientist – through an eight-week-long blended curriculum of instruction, hands-on basic laboratory skill training, and in-depth tours of working labs. From the outset, iCLEM has been dedicated to nurturing budding scientists who would not otherwise have access to a college preparation scientific internship. Full story here.

A Game-Changing Test for Prion, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s Diseases Is on the Horizon

There are currently no effective treatments for prion diseases, a family of fatal neurodegenerative conditions caused by accumulations of misfolded copies of a naturally occurring protein. But now, there is finally an effective way to test for them. As reported in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of scientists who have been working on prion detection for nearly 20 years have demonstrated that their unique, synthetic-molecule-based approach can isolate prion proteins in body fluids sampled from infected animals. This finding is a momentous milestone in the evolution of a biomedical technology with far-ranging applications. Full story here.

/Public Release. The material in this public release comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.