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Brookhaven National Laboratory releases 2017 top discoveries

Brookhaven Lab chemists Ping Liu and José Rodriguez

Brookhaven Lab chemists Ping Liu and José Rodriguez helped to characterize structural and mechanistic details of a new low-temperature catalyst. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Glass that could improve your iPhone, sodium batteries that could replace lithium and a path to unprecedented views of the cosmos are just a few of the discoveries on Brookhaven National Laboratorys list of the institute’s top 10 discoveries of the year.

“These 10 discoveries are highlights of the many advances Brookhaven Lab staff and our collaborators made this past year on behalf of Long Island, New York State and the nation,” said Doon Gibbs, Brookhaven Lab director. “It’s been an exciting year, and we look forward to the new discoveries awaiting us in 2018.”

Here’s what the lab included on its list and how these discoveries could one day impact you.

Invisible Glass

Scientists at the lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials found a way to drastically reduce the reflections from glass surfaces. Etching nanoscale features into the glass renders it “ultra-transparent,” researchers found. The findings were published in October and could be used to improve solar-cell efficiency or even eliminate the glare from your iPhone, according to a news release from the lab.

Fattening Up Plant Leaves

Brookhaven biochemists have engineered plants capable of producing oil in their leaves, the lab announced in September. Plant oils are normally stored in seeds but the Brookhaven breakthrough could make the substance more abundant and easier to extract for the production of biofuels and other chemicals.

Understanding Quark Soup

Using the only operating particle collider in the country, researchers are shedding some light on quark soup, plasma made up of matter’s fundamental building blocks that filled the early universe. Scientists found that the particle soup swirls faster than any known liquid, a discovery published in the August edition of the scientific journal Nature. This data could be used to measure the strength of the plasma’s magnetic field, according to the release.

Brookhaven’s physicists also demonstrated the first use of high-performance computing, which will get ion collision data into the hands of scientists far faster than before.

By studying these properties, scientists hope to unlock the secrets of the strongest and most poorly understood force in nature — the one responsible for binding quarks and gluons into the protons and neutrons that form most of the visible matter in the universe today.

Low Temperature Hydrogen Catalyst

Brookhaven chemists analyzed a newly developed catalyst that would make fuel-cell-powered cars more efficient. The catalyst produces a purer form of hydrogen to feed into fuel cells than other methods, while eliminating carbon monoxide.

The Brookhaven team inspected the device using X-ray diffraction to reveal how the configuration of atoms changed under different conditions. This data and additional studies conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and in China could lead to the design of improved catalysts for a range of applications, according to the release.

Record-Breaking Small-Scale Patterning

A record for patterning materials at the nanoscale was set by scientists at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials. The development, which can space features just 11 nanometers apart using an electron beam, could “dramatically alter material properties, such as color, chemical reactivity, electrical conductivity and light interactions,” the release states.

“Until now, patterning materials at a single nanometer (billionth of a meter) has not been possible in a controllable and efficient way,” the lead author of the study, Vitor Manfrinato said.

Trapping Gas in 2D ‘Cages’

Scientists discovered it’s possible for two-dimensional structures to trap atoms of gas. The Brookhaven team found argon gas atoms inside the pores of a 2D structure they had created for an experiment.

The discovery could lead to a new method for researchers to study single gas atoms in confinement or could be used to create absorbent materials that capture gas. The 2D “cages” may also be employed to trap radioactive elements generated by nuclear power plants or help filter carbon monoxide or other small molecules, according to the release.

Promising Cathode for Sodium-Based Batteries

Brookhaven researchers, collaborating with scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, designed a new type of cathode that could help mass produce sodium batteries. Batteries built from low-cost sodium would offset the demand for lithium batteries and could be used in cars or electronic devices.

Possible X-ray Imaging Advance

Working with scientists from Stony Brook University, researchers have solved a mystery that could lead to new and improved medical imaging technology.

The team found how light moves within scintillators, a component of X-ray detectors that absorb X-rays and turn them into bursts of light. But light moving inside the scintillator can clutter an X-ray image. This new understanding of scintillators may open the door to create better X-ray detectors, according to the release.

Machine Learning Reveals Chemistry in Action

Brookhaven and Stony Brook University scientists created a new method to visualize chemical reactions. The technique will allow for fast analysis of how catalysts change during reactions, so scientists can tweak reaction conditions or catalyst chemistry at will.

First Raft of Sensors for Major Telescope

Brookhaven scientists completed the lab’s first component for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is designed to produce unprecedented views of the cosmos.

The “science raft” is part of the sensor array that makes up the camera segment of the telescope. It’s the first of 21 rafts that will be assembled by the Brookhaven team.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope camera will be the largest digital camera ever built for astronomy, according to the release.

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