These two LANL scientists hope to make it big with their new technologies

By Colin Krabbee, Technology Reporter, Albuquerque Business First.  July 10, 2018, 7:31am.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has been the breeding ground for some successful high-tech companies in recent years. Now, more LANL scientists are hoping to make it big in business with their new technologies.

Two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are set to debut new technologies on Thursday that they are hoping will shift industries and propel them to entrepreneurial success. 

They are among those presenting their new ideas at this year's fourth annual DisrupTech, a conference dedicated to finding potential market applications for technologies developed at the labs. 

Other well-known high-tech companies have LANL roots, including San Diego's Mesa Biotech Inc. and Santa Fe-based artificial intelligence firm Descartes Labs Inc., which recently made the Wall Street Journal's list of 25 Tech Companies to Watch 2018.

During the most recent fiscal year, LANL created 8,848 jobs with salaries totaling $321.8 million, according to the organization's website.

Greening nuclear fuels

One of the researchers featured at the event is Karla Erickson. She is working toward cheaper and cleaner nuclear energy production.

"Nuclear, of course, has gotten a bad rap in the past ... I think there is a lot of public discomfort," Erickson said. "My technology is focused on how to synthesize UCl3 safely." 

UCl3, or uranium trichloride, is a chemical that can be used for processing nuclear fuel. Until now, according to Erickson, large-scale nuclear energy production using the compound was not possible due to multiple factors. 

Traditionally, UCl3 is made from a reagent that is outsourced from China and requires a multistep synthesis process that needed multiple workers and resulted in a "significant" amount of waste, according to Ericsson's presentation. This process is both expensive and too hazardous to be scalable.

But Ericsson's synthesis process, which she says only takes one step, could change that. 

"We've done the chemistry, we know it works," Erickson said. "Our new procedure cuts the cost by about 50 percent."

Erickson is in the process of raising capital for the project and declined to disclose how much funding she already has.

Winning the war on bugs

Scientist Laura Lilley will also be a part of this year's conference. She's out to solve a different, smaller problem.

"We don't really have antibiotics to address the microbes that are there today ... the pharmaceutical pipeline has not been able to keep up," Lilley said. 

To address that problem, Lilley is literally aiming to blow up the microscopic vermin. She uses what are called "alpha particles" which she says can penetrate bacteria and make it explode due to the high amount of energy emitted.

Human health is not the only practical use for this technology, according to Lilley, who said it can also be used to clean oil pipes of a certain bacteria that causes corrosion. She aims to pursue that market while she continues the research and development process for human applications, which could take over a decade. 

Though the technology is still in the development stage, Lilley remains optimistic about its future.

"[We are] about two months away ... max [from finishing the development of the technology]," Lilley said. "We have preliminary data that is very encouraging."

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