William Anderegg Receives Blavatnik Award

William Anderegg RECEIVES Blavatnik Award

On July 26, the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences announced that Dr. William Anderegg is one of three national laureates to receive the 2023 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. A video announcing Anderegg’s selection for the Blavatnik Award  is available here.

Dr. Anderegg is an associate professor of Biological Sciences at the U and director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy. As the 2023 Laureate in Life Sciences, he is being awarded $250,000 for his work on “revealing how trees absorb and release carbon dioxide amidst a changing climate.” This is the largest unrestricted scientific award for America’s most innovative, faculty-ranked scientists and engineers who are under the age of 42.

Anderegg’s recent publications have examined the interaction of plant ecology and climate change, from the scale of cells to forest ecosystems. Specifically, he addresses how drought and climate change affect Earth’s forests and the manifold benefits they bring to society. His work overturns a 50-year foundational theory on how stomata—pores on leaves that facilitate photosynthesis—behave in order to improve carbon gain and minimize water loss, and in turn, how this affects global forests’ response to climate change.

 As a leading voice in the field of climate change, Anderegg’s discoveries are already informing climate solutions, global policies, and public health. He is the first ever winner of the Blavatnik Regional Awards to be awarded the Blavatnik National Award Laureate. 

 “I am thrilled that our important work continues to be recognized,” said Anderegg. “I hope that our contributions to this field of research can help illuminate the future of Earth’s forests and provide urgently-needed tools to tackle climate change and increase resilience in ecosystems and communities in the US and across the globe.”

 The 2023 Blavatnik National Awards received 267 nominations from 134 institutions in 38 U.S. states. Nominees must be faculty-level scientific researchers, 42 years of age or younger. Three independent juries —one each for life sciences, chemistry, and physical sciences and engineering —were composed of some of America’s most distinguished scientists. The juries selected three winning laureates and 28 finalists.  

The Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists will celebrated the 2023 laureates and finalists in a ceremony on September 19 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (See banner photo above: William Anderegg with Sir Leonard Valentinovich Blavatnik)

In April, Anderegg was one of three 2023 recipients of the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award for his contributions to ecosystem and climate change science.

 

 

Tinker Toy Rises

After months of earth-moving, the Applied Science Project gets some serious hardware.

Senior Risk and Safety Manager Carlyn Chester and flagman Alan. Credit: David Pace

These days pedestrians along University Street on the westside of campus are typically met by Alan, a bearded, sixty-something employee and certified UDOT flagger dressed in Okland Construction garb, including hard hat with neck sunshade that cascades to his shoulders and sometimes flaps in the wind. Alan’s here keeping order at the gated threshold to the construction site of the Applied Science Project and is happy to give you a fist bump as you walk to work along the detour they’ve put up. Armed with a push broom, and a mobile phone, he slows traffic for entering and exiting trucks, and lines up arrivals carrying everything from timbers to a porta-potty called “Honey Bucket.”

On the morning of June 7th, the team was preparing for the delivery of a giant tower crane, in sections, which will stand around 265 feet tall for a full year at the site like a giant Tinker Toy. A tower crane features a jib or “jib arm” as a horizontal beam used to support the load clear of the main support. It can typically lift 19.8 tons (18 metric tons).

“So these cranes are so big they need to have all these counterweights and stuff,” says Carlyn Chester BS’09, Senior Risk and Safety Manager at Okland Construction. She spells her name for us: “Like George Carlin [the late sometimes raunchy comedian] but with a ‘y’ . . . and I’m not a dirty old man,” she says with a laugh. Chester oversees all of the many Okland projects at the University of Utah.  The cranes need to be “strong enough to pick up those tower pieces,” she continues over the relentless beeping of a nearby steer loader pushing gravel.  “You need a crane to build a crane. You have to put in all the counterweights and footings . . . [There are] two big semis worth of materials just to get that crane set up tomorrow before the tower crane comes in.”

Credit: Todd Anderson

The gaping hole in front of the old Stewart Building—site of the new Applied Science Building—is squared off with wooden bulwarks holding up the sides (temporary) backed by a cement retaining wall (permanent). It looks like a neatly squared-off grave for a giant of sorts, two stories deep at the back and the sides sloping down the hill to a mere curb at the street. It’s a striking contrast to the bucolic Cottam’s Gulch with its brick path and towering hybrid trees to the north which will be a preserved historic asset to what will become the College of Science’s Crocker Science Complex.

“Did you find any bones?” we ask. Back in 2017 when the George Thomas Building was being retrofitted and expanded for the Crocker Science Center, Okland unearthed human bones that turned out to be the remains of old cadavers that had been discarded decades earlier by the medical school, originally located in the Life Sciences Building, another Okland project on campus.

“We found a couple of things,” says Chester. “The paleontologist people were here every single day when we were digging.” (It turns out the bones were from modern animals.)

Credit: Todd Anderson

Carlyn points at a boxy, hexagonal structure to the left where a temporary footing has been positioned in the bottom of it. The footing is inspected by a structural engineer “to make sure it’s level and plumb so that when we start building, [the tower crane is] stable. There’s so much science that goes into it and mathematics,” she says.

Meanwhile, Alan has ambled back to the street to talk to a truck driver who has just pulled up. When he returns, he and Carlyn pose for a picture together­–all smiles under their hard hats and neck shades that faintly remind one of Lawrence of Arabia’s. Alone, we ask Alan to “Flash the U” for us which he struggles a bit with. “My dad went to BYU,” he says sheepishly.

Bright and early next morning, Alan was back giving his signature fist bumps to passers-by. They stopped for a few moments to witness the newly arrived crane-to-build-a-crane with a synchronized telescoping boom as high (or higher) than one of those vertiginous, gut-wrenching rides at Lagoon amusement park north of here. Soon the semis arrived with tower segments which were off-loaded, rigged and then lofted off the ground vertically.

Even the rowdy fox squirrels in Cottam’s Gulch paused in a moment of awe as the Tinker Toy began to rise, a flash of yellow latticed steel against the summer sky.

By David Pace

 

 

 

Utah’s Fly’s Eye Telescope Array

Closing in on the cosmic origins of the “OMG Particle”

The helicopter was flying high through the night sky with its door slightly ajar. Johannes Eser and Matthew Rodencal were in the back controlling a laser pointing out through the gap. They aimed towards a balloon 35 kilometers above them and fired.

It sounds like a scene from a spy movie, but Eser and Rodencal, then at the Colorado School of Mines, were actually testing a plan to spot ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, the most energetic particles ever discovered. They stream across the universe before slamming into our atmosphere and emitting a tiny flash of light. The laser was supposed to mimic that flash.

This twilight helicopter ride happened nearly a decade ago, but is part of a saga that goes back to at least 1991. In October that year, we detected the single most energetic particle ever seen. It had the kinetic energy of a bowling ball dropped from shoulder height, crammed into a subatomic-sized package. It quickly became known as the “Oh-My-God particle” and, naturally enough, scientists were desperate to know where it came from.

Since then, we have spotted many similar particles. Huge ground-based detectors have provided us with maps of where they might come from, together with a shortlist of the extreme cosmic objects that could produce them. But truth be told, we still don’t have all the answers. That is why scientists now want to take the cosmic ray hunt into the atmosphere – and ultimately into space – in an effort to solve the mystery … once and for all.

This story really began with another balloon in 1911. At that time, physicist Victor Hess climbed into a hot air balloon, taking with him instruments to measure levels of radiation as he ascended. He found the readings increased as he went up – contrary to the prevailing belief that they would decline with altitude – and concluded that this radiation must be caused by something coming from space, not Earth. That something became known as cosmic rays, though we now know them to be particles, often protons or clusters of protons and neutrons.

Cosmic rays

When cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, they usually collide with molecules in the atmosphere, producing a shower of energetic particles that rain down. (These descendants of the original particle still contain a lot of energy and have been suspected of interfering with the electronics of aircraft.) It is this shower of secondary particles that we have learned to detect, allowing us to infer the energy of the cosmic ray that produced it. We now know that cosmic rays come in a range of energies. The least energetic are the most common, with each square centimeter of the outer atmosphere being hit once a minute by one of them. The most energetic are much rarer – they strike only once a century per square kilometer.

David Keida

The rays that Hess detected were relatively modest in energy, it turns out, measuring less than 1 gigaelectronvolt (GeV). It wasn’t until the 1960s that more extreme versions were found, when physicist John Linsley used an array of ground detectors in New Mexico to spot the shower created by a cosmic ray with the vastly greater energy of 100 exaelectronvolts (EeV).

That was a staggering find. But the best was yet to come. In the 1980s, a larger project called the Fly’s Eye telescope array was built in Utah [at Dugway Proving Ground, see photo above]. It had more than 100 detectors, each equipped with a 1.5-meter-wide mirror to look for the flash of particles colliding in the atmosphere. Each of the telescope’s detectors were designed to point at a different part of the field of view, in a similar way to insects’ compound eyes. It was this that earned the telescope its name. “We were hoping we might pick up something really unusual,” says David Kieda at the University of Utah, who worked on the telescope at the time.

 

Read the full article at New Scientist (subscription required).

A.A.U. Membership

UTAH JOINS THE A.A.U.


 

"It is difficult to overstate the importance of AAU Membership. This elevates the U to an exceptional category of peer institutions."
- Dean Peter Trapa

 

The University of Utah is one of the newest members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, which for more than 100 years has recognized the most outstanding academic institutions in the nation.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), announced Wednesday that University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins has accepted an invitation to join the association, along with the University of California, Santa Cruz and Dartmouth College. The three new members bring the number of AAU institutions to 65.

AAU invitations are infrequent; this year’s invitations are the first since 2012.

 

 

“AAU’s membership is limited to institutions at the forefront of scientific inquiry and educational excellence,” said Coleman. “These world-class institutions are a welcome addition, and we look forward to working with them as we continue to shape policy for higher education, science, and innovation.” - Mary Sue Coleman

 

About the AAU
The AAU formed in 1900 to promote and raise standards for university research and education. Today its mission is to “provide a forum for the development and implementation of institutional and national policies promoting strong programs of academic research and scholarship and undergraduate, graduate and professional education.”

A current list of member institutions can be found here. The membership criteria are based on a university’s research funding (the U reached a milestone of $547 million in research funding in FY2019); the proportion of faculty elected to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; the impact of research and scholarship; and student outcomes. The U has 21 National Academies members, with some elected to more than one academy.

An AAU committee periodically reviews universities and recommends them to the full association for membership, where a three-fourths vote is required to confirm the invitation.

Leaders of AAU member universities meet to discuss common challenges and future directions in higher education. The U’s leaders will now join those meetings, which include the leaders of all the top 10 and 56 of the top 100 universities in the United States.

 

“We already knew that the U was one of the jewels of Utah and of the Intermountain West. This invitation shows that we are one of the jewels of the entire nation.” - H. David Burton

 

U on the rise
In FY2019 the U celebrated a historic high of $547 million in sponsored project funding, covering a wide range of research activities. These prestigious awards from organizations such as the U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation are supporting work in geothermal energy, cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches to research that challenge existing paradigms and effects of cannabinoids on pain management.

They also are funding educational research programs with significant community engagement, such as the U’s STEM Ambassador Program and the Genetic Science Learning Center’s participation in the All of Us Research Program.

“AAU is a confirmation of the quality and caliber of our faculty and the innovative work they are doing to advance knowledge and address grand societal challenges. Our students and our community will be the ultimate beneficiaries of these endeavors. " - President Ruth Watkins

 

On Nov. 4, 2019, the U announced a $150 million gift, the largest single-project donation in its history, to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. These gifts and awards are in addition to the ongoing support of the U from the Utah State Legislature.

This fall the university welcomed its most academically prepared class of first-year students. The freshman cohort includes 4,249 students boasting an impressive 3.66 average high school GPA and an average ACT composite score of 25.8. The incoming class also brings more diversity to campus with both a 54% increase in international students and more bilingual students than the previous year’s freshman class. Among our freshmen who are U.S. citizens, 30% are students of color.

The U’s focus on student success has led to an increased six-year graduation rate, which now sits at 70%—well above the national average for four-year schools. The rate has jumped 19 percentage points over the past decade, making it one of only two public higher education research institutions to achieve this success.

Spirit of Salam

Spirit of Salam


Tino Nyawelo

Tino Nyawelo Wins 2023 Spirit of Salam Award.

The family of International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) founder and Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam announced that Tino Nyawelo, associate professor of physics at the University of Utah, is a recipient of the 2023 Spirit of Salam Award. Revealed annually on Abdus Salam’s birthday, the award recognizes those who, like Salam himself, have worked tirelessly to promote the development of science and technology in disadvantaged parts of the world.

Nyawelo was recognized for founding Refugees Exploring the Foundations of Undergraduate Education in Science (REFUGES), a program to help historically excluded students to pursue STEM education at the university level. Nyawelo, who in 1997 left his home country of Sudan to complete a postgraduate program at the ICTP in Italy, considers the award a full circle moment.

“This award is very special to me because my time at the center put me directly on the path that I’m following today,” Nyawelo said.

Abdus Salem

Salam, a theoretical physicist from Punjab, Pakistan, received a bachelor’s and doctorate degree from the University of Cambridge due to Pakistan’s lack of scientific infrastructure at the time. Salam was a passionate advocate for boosting science in developing countries and lived by his conviction that science is the common heritage of humankind. In 1964, he founded the ICTP in Trieste, Italy, as an “international scientific hub of excellence linking scientists from developing countries with their colleagues worldwide, overcoming intellectual isolation and helping build a strong scientific base around the world so that all countries can play their rightful role in the global science community and in the family of nations,” according to the ICTP. He won the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, becoming the first Pakistani and the first Muslim from an Islamic country to receive the prestigious prize in science.

In 1996, Nyawelo was unsure of his next move. He had completed a bachelor’s degree in physics from the Sudan University of Science and Technology in Khartoum, Sudan and was appointed as a teaching assistant. At the time, there were no Sudanese physics PhD programs, and he was considering switching to computer science. Luckily, Marten Durieux, a renowned Dutch physicist from the University of Leiden, Netherlands, intervened. Durieux, who passed away in 2011, traveled to Sudan every year to teach physics courses. His first-ever PhD student was a brilliant scholar from Sudan, and Durieux fell in love with the country. Over his career, Durieux mentored 11 Sudanese students through their PhDs. Nyawelo was admitted to a year-long intensive program at the ICTP.

Marten Durieux

“The ICTP diploma program was eye-opening, but difficult,” said Nyawelo. “It was the first time I’d left my country, the first time I’d learned science in a language other than Arabic, I didn’t know anybody, and Italy was a culture shock.”

Through Durieux, Nyawelo met Jan-Willem van Holten, a theoretical physicist at the Dutch the National Institute for Nuclear Physics and High Energy Physics (NIKHEF), with whom Nyawelo continues to collaborate to this day. After he completed his PhD in 2004, he returned to the ICTP for his postdoc. During his time in Europe, Nyawelo traveled frequently to Utah to visit his girlfriend, now wife. They started dating in Sudan, but she and her family were relocated to Salt Lake City after fleeing violence at the outbreak of the Sudanese civil war. Many of Nyawelo’s friends and classmates had also relocated—and the community felt like coming home.

“Durieux—that’s the connection that helped me, and motivated me to help others. I benefited a lot from support to pursue physics without paying a cent,” Nyawelo said. “I was planning on giving something back.”

While in Utah, colleagues in the Department of Physics & Astronomy gave Nyawelo a desk to continue his research, eventually offering him a post-doc position in 2007. By 2009, he and other members of the refugee community became alarmed at the high rates of school dropouts. They realized that many refugee youth come to Utah with little English and intermittent formal schooling. When they arrive in Utah, the school system places them in a grade based on their age, leaving many feeling overwhelmed and left behind. Nyawelo and partners founded REFUGES, an after-school program to help refugee students in middle and high school thrive in STEM subjects. The U has housed REFUGES since 2013 where it has expanded to include a summer bridge program for incoming first-year students at the U, and non-refugee students who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Nyawelo in the classroom.

“I related to the Utah newcomers. It reminded me of when I went to Italy for the first time, science was taught in different language in a very different system,” said Nyawelo. “That’s how the whole afterschool program started. Because I remember the feeling of being that vulnerable.”

In 2020, the National Science Foundation awarded Nyawelo and collaborators $1.1 million over three years to study how refugee teenagers construct self-identities related to STEM across settings, such as physics research and creating digital stories, across relationships, such as peer, parent, and teacher, and across the languages they speak. Embedded in REFUGES, the first-of-its-kind project is titled “Investigating the development of STEM-positive identities of refugee teens in a physics out-of-school time experience.”

A cohort of teens learned the principles of physics and computer programming by building detectors for cosmic rays. The detector technology is adapted from HiSPARC (High School Project on Astrophysics Research with Cosmics), a program founded by Nyawelo’s former advisor, van Holton. van Holton and his students have flown to Utah several times to help Nyawelo adapt the program.

“I still have a big connection with the Netherlands— van Holten and his colleques at Nikhef has donated a lot of the equipment for free, to work and build cosmic ray detectors with high schools student here in Utah, and they handed me the project that they started more than 20 years ago,” said Nyawelo. “It’s been an exciting project that can serve as a model for other places who want to support students from these backgrounds succeed in STEM in higher education. Just like I was at ICTP and the Netherlands.”

Other Awardees
The two other Spirit of Salam awardees Hugo Celso Perez Rojas of the Instituto de Cybernetics Mathematics and Physics in Cuba, who has worked intensely to persuade Cuban policy makers that basic science is by no means a luxury but a crucial need for the development of third-world economies; and Federico Rosei, Institut National Recherche Scientifique in Montréal, Canada, has shown outstanding international leadership, spanning from research, to education to building capacity and mentoring.

“We are delighted to recognize the contribution of these three fine humanitarians, who have taken the spirit and example of Abdus Salam to serve humanity and promote education to the most deserving in the developing countries. They have worked tirelessly to support those, who purely by the accident of their birth do not have access to those born in the developed countries.”

by Lisa Potter, first published @ theU

 

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Space Sunscreen

Space Sunscreen


Ben Bromley

Dust launched from the moon’s surface or from a space station positioned between Earth and the sun could reduce enough solar radiation to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

On a cold winter day, the warmth of the sun is welcome. Yet as humanity emits more and more greenhouse gases, the Earth's atmosphere traps more and more of the sun's energy and steadily increases the Earth's temperature. One strategy for reversing this trend is to intercept a fraction of sunlight before it reaches our planet. For decades, scientists have considered using screens, objects or dust particles to block just enough of the sun’s radiation—between 1 or 2%—to mitigate the effects of global warming.

A University of Utah-led study explored the potential of using dust to shield sunlight. They analyzed different properties of dust particles, quantities of dust and the orbits that would be best suited for shading Earth. The authors found that launching dust from Earth to a way station at the “Lagrange Point” between Earth and the sun (L1) would be most effective but would require astronomical cost and effort. An alternative is to use moondust. The authors argue that launching lunar dust from the moon instead could be a cheap and effective way to shade the Earth.

The team of astronomers applied a technique used to study planet formation around distant stars, their usual research focus. Planet formation is a messy process that kicks up lots of astronomical dust that can form rings around the host star. These rings intercept light from the central star and re-radiate it in a way that we can detect it on Earth. One way to discover stars that are forming new planets is to look for these dusty rings.

“That was the seed of the idea; if we took a small amount of material and put it on a special orbit between the Earth and the sun and broke it up, we could block out a lot of sunlight with a little amount of mass,” said Ben Bromley, professor of physics and astronomy and lead author for the study.

"It is interesting to contemplate how moon dust—which took over four billion years to generate—might help to solve climate change, a problem that took us less than 300 years to produce,” said Scott Kenyon, co-author of the study from the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard + Smithsonian.

The paper  was published on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in the journal PLOS Climate.

A simulation from dust launched from the way station at Lagrange point 1. The shadow cast on Earth is exaggerated for clarity.

Casting a shadow

A shield’s overall effectiveness depends on its ability to sustain an orbit that casts a shadow on Earth. Sameer Khan, undergraduate student and the study’s co-author, led the initial exploration into which orbits could hold dust in position long enough to provide adequate shading. Khan’s work demonstrated the difficulty of keeping dust where you need it to be.

“Because we know the positions and masses of the major celestial bodies in our solar system, we can simply use the laws of gravity to track the position of a simulated sunshield over time for several different orbits,” said Khan.

Two scenarios were promising. In the first scenario, the authors positioned a space platform at the L1 Lagrange point, the closest point between Earth and the sun where the gravitational forces are balanced. Objects at Lagrange points tend to stay along a path between the two celestial bodies, which is why the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is located at L2, a Lagrange point on the opposite side of the Earth.

In computer simulations, the researchers shot test particles along the L1 orbit, including the position of Earth, the sun, the moon, and other solar system planets, and tracked where the particles scattered. The authors found that when launched precisely, the dust would follow a path between Earth and the sun, effectively creating shade, at least for a while. Unlike the 13,000-pound JWST, the dust was easily blown off course by the solar winds, radiation, and gravity within the solar system. Any L1 platform would need to create an endless supply of new dust batches to blast into orbit every few days after the initial spray dissipates.

“It was rather difficult to get the shield to stay at L1 long enough to cast a meaningful shadow. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, since L1 is an unstable equilibrium point. Even the slightest deviation in the sunshield’s orbit can cause it to rapidly drift out of place, so our simulations had to be extremely precise,” Khan said.

A simulation of dust launched from the moon’s surface as seen from Earth.

In the second scenario, the authors shot lunar dust from the surface of the moon towards the sun. They found that the inherent properties of lunar dust were just right to effectively work as a sun shield. The simulations tested how lunar dust scattered along various courses until they found excellent trajectories aimed toward L1 that served as an effective sun shield. These results are welcome news, because much less energy is needed to launch dust from the moon than from Earth. This is important because the amount of dust in a solar shield is large, comparable to the output of a big mining operation here on Earth. Furthermore, the discovery of the new sun-shielding trajectories means delivering the lunar dust to a separate platform at L1 may not be necessary.

Just a moonshot?

The authors stress that this study only explores the potential impact of this strategy, rather than evaluate whether these scenarios are logistically feasible.

“We aren’t experts in climate change, or the rocket science needed to move mass from one place to the other. We’re just exploring different kinds of dust on a variety of orbits to see how effective this approach might be. We do not want to miss a game changer for such a critical problem,” said Bromley.

One of the biggest logistical challenges—replenishing dust streams every few days—also has an advantage. Eventually, the sun’s radiation disperses the dust particles throughout the solar system; the sun shield is temporary and shield particles do not fall onto Earth. The authors assure that their approach would not create a permanently cold, uninhabitable planet, as in the science fiction story, “Snowpiercer.”

“Our strategy could be an option in addressing climate change,” said Bromley, “if what we need is more time.”

by Lisa Potter, first published @ theU Lead photo by aerolite.org

 

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Relativistic Jet

Relativistic Jet


Tanmoy Laskar

Mysterious bright flash is a black hole jet pointing straight at Earth.

Earlier this year, astronomers at the Palomar Observatory detected an extraordinary flash in a part of the sky where no such light had been observed the night before. From a rough calculation, the flash appeared to give off more light than 1,000 trillion suns.

The team, led by researchers at NASA, Caltech, and elsewhere, posted their discovery to an astronomy newsletter, where the signal drew the attention of astronomers around the world, including scientists at MIT and the University of Utah. Over the next few days, multiple telescopes focused in on the signal to gather more data across multiple wavelengths in the X-ray, ultraviolet, optical and radio bands, to see what could possibly produce such an enormous amount of light.

Now, the U and MIT astronomers and collaborators have determined a likely source for the signal. Tanmoy Laskar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the U, was co-author of a study that appeared on Nov. 30 in Nature Astronomy. The scientists report that the signal, named AT 2022cmc, likely comes from a relativistic jet of matter launched by a supermassive black hole at close to the speed of light. They believe the jet is the product of a black hole that suddenly began devouring a nearby star, releasing a huge amount of energy in the process.

Astronomers have observed other such “tidal disruption events,” or TDEs, in which a passing star is torn apart by a black hole’s tidal forces. AT 2022cmc is brighter than any TDE discovered to date. The source is also the farthest TDE ever detected, at some 8.5 billion lights years away—more than halfway across the universe.

Palomar Observatory

How could such a distant event appear so bright in our sky? The team said the black hole’s jet may be pointing directly toward Earth, making the signal appear brighter than if the jet were pointing in any other direction. The effect is called “Doppler boosting.”

AT 2022cmc is the fourth Doppler-boosted TDE ever detected and the first such event that has been observed since 2011. It is also the first TDE discovered using an optical sky survey.

“One of the tell-tale signatures of the presence of such a jet is powerful radio emission from a small volume of space,” said Laskar. A preliminary report alerted the team that this event might have detectable radio emissions. “So, we followed it up with the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, and boom, there it was! Bright radio emission signaling a compact, Doppler-boosted jet.”

As more powerful telescopes start up in the coming years, they will reveal more TDEs, which can shed light on how supermassive black holes grow and shape the galaxies around them.

“We know there is one supermassive black hole per galaxy, and they formed very quickly in the universe’s first million years,” said co-author Matteo Lucchini, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “That tells us they feed very fast, though we don’t know how that feeding process works. So, sources like a TDE can actually be a really good probe for how that process happens.”

Feeding frenzy

Following AT 2022cmc’s initial discovery, the team focused in on the signal using the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER), an X-ray telescope that operates aboard the International Space Station.

“Things looked pretty normal the first three days,” recalled the study’s lead author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham, who is an Einstein Fellow at MIT. “Then we looked at it with an X-ray telescope, and what we found was, the source was too bright.”

Typically, such bright flashes in the sky are gamma-ray bursts—extreme jets of X-ray emissions that spew from the collapse of massive stars.

“Both GRBs and TDEs are events that have superfast jets pointed at Earth,” said Laskar. “One of the key ways to distinguish between them is in the X-rays. Jetted TDEs seem to also have strongly variable X-ray emission.” Indeed, the team found that X-ray emissions from AT 2022cmc swung widely by a factor of 500 over a few weeks.

The team then gathered observations from other X-ray, radio, optical and UV telescopes and tracked the signal’s activity over the next few weeks. Another remarkable property they observed was the signal’s extreme luminosity in the X-ray band.

“This particular event was 100 times more powerful than the most powerful gamma-ray burst afterglow,” Pasham said. “It was something extraordinary.”

They suspected that such extreme X-ray activity must be powered by an extreme accretion episode—an event that generates a huge churning disk, such as from a tidal disruption event, in which a shredded star creates a whirlpool of debris as it falls into a black hole.

The team found that AT 2022cmc’s X-ray luminosity was comparable to, though brighter than, three previously detected jetted TDEs. These bright events happened to generate jets of matter pointing straight toward Earth. The researchers wondered: If AT 2022cmc’s luminosity is the result of a similar Earth-targeting jet, how fast must the jet be moving to generate such a bright signal? To answer this, Lucchini modeled the signal’s data, assuming the event involved a jet headed straight toward Earth.

“We found that the jet speed is 99.99% the speed of light,” Lucchini said.

To produce such an intense jet, the black hole must be in an extremely active phase—what Pasham described as a “hyper-feeding frenzy.”

“It’s probably swallowing the star at the rate of half the mass of the sun per year,” Pasham estimated. “A lot of this tidal disruption happens early on, and we were able to catch this event right at the beginning, within one week of the black hole starting to feed on the star.”

“We expect many more of these TDEs in the future,” Lucchini added. “Then we might be able to say, finally, how exactly black holes launch these extremely powerful jets.”

“When the next TDE is discovered, we will again be ready to catch its light from X-rays to radio waves,” Laskar said. “By combining such data with physical models, we hope to build a full picture of how supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies grow, evolve, and shape their environments over cosmic time.”

by Lisa Potter | Adapted from a release by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office
first published in @theu

 

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APS Fellows

APS Fellows


Physics Professors Named APS Fellows

Two professors in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy—Christoph Boehme, Professor and Chair of the department, and Ramón Barthelemy, Assistant Professor, have been elected fellows of the American Physical Society (APS). The APS Fellowship Program was created to recognize members who may have made advances in physics through original research and publication, or made significant innovative contributions in the application of physics to science and technology. They may also have made significant contributions to the teaching of physics or service and participation in the activities of the society.

Election to the APS is considered one of the most prestigious and exclusive honors for a physicist—the number of recommended nominees in each year may not exceed one-half percent of the current membership of the Society. APS is a nonprofit membership organization working to advance the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. The APS represents more than 50,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world.

Christoph Boehme

Christoph Boehme

“I am profoundly honored by my selection as an APS Fellow. Receiving this recognition is an excellent opportunity to look back at my research career, starting with my first experiments as an undergraduate researcher more than 25 years ago. When I think about all the discoveries and inventions I have had the chance to contribute to, I realize that none of them would have happened without the collaboration, support, and collegiality of many others. These include my former research advisors, all the students and postdocs who have worked in my research labs, my colleagues at the University of Utah (both staff and faculty), and other institutions. I am very much indebted to all these wonderful people.”

Boehme was born and raised in Oppenau, a small town in southwest Germany, 20 miles east of the French city of Strasbourg. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, and committing to 15 months of civil services caring for disabled people (chosen to avoid the military draft), he moved to Heidelberg, Germany in 1994 to study physics at Heidelberg University.

In 1997 Boehme won a German-American Fulbright Student Scholarship, which brought him to the United States for the first time, where he studied at North Carolina State University and met his spouse. In 2000 they moved to Berlin, Germany, where they lived for five years while he worked for the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, a national laboratory. He finished his dissertation work as a graduate student of the University of Marburg in 2002 and spent an additional three years working as a postdoctoral researcher.

Boehme moved to Utah in 2006 to join the Department of Physics & Astronomy as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure in 2010; three years later, he became a professor. During his tenure at the U, Boehme received recognition through a CAREER Award of the National Science Foundation in 2010, the Silver Medal for Physics and Materials Science from the International EPR Society in 2016, as well as the U’s Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award in 2018 for his contributions and scientific breakthroughs in electron spin physics and for his leadership in the field of spintronics.

He was appointed Chair of the department in July, 2020 after serving as interim chair. Previously, Boehme served as associate chair of the department from 2010-2015. His research is focused on the exploration of spin-dependent electronic processes in condensed matter. The goal of the Boehme Group is to develop sensitive coherent spin motion detection schemes for small spin ensembles that are needed for quantum computing and general materials research.

Ramón Barthelemy

Ramón Barthelemy

“When I started graduate school you couldn’t even ask the LGBT question in physics without ending your career,” said Barthelemy. “Although homophobia and transphobia are still rampant in physics, a few of us are lucky enough to ask the question and still continue in the field. It is amazing to get this recognition for my work considering the history of queer people in physics, from Alan Turing‘s death to the ending of Frank Kameny‘s astronomy career, and the inability of people like Sally Ride and Nikola Tesla to be public with all of their relationships. I am both humbled and full of gratitude to pursue funded work giving voice to queer people in physics and, importantly, changing policy.”

Barthelemy is an early-career physicist with a record of groundbreaking scholarship and advocacy that has advanced the field of physics education research as it pertains to gender issues and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)+ physicists.

The field of physics struggles to support students and faculty from historically excluded groups. Barthelemy has long worked to make the field more inclusive—he has served on the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Committee on Women in Physics and on the Committee on Diversity—and was an early advocate for LGBT+ voices in the AAPT. He co-authored LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, an influential report for the American Physical Society, and the first edition of the LGBT+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy Best Practices Guide, which offers actionable strategies for physicists to improve their departments and workplaces for LGBT+ colleagues and students. He also recently published the first peer reviewed quantitative study on LGBT+ physicists which received national attention.

In 2019, Barthelemy joined the U’s College of Science as its first tenure-track faculty member focusing on physics education research (PER), a field that studies how people learn physics and culture of the community. Since arriving, he has built a program that gives students rigorous training in physics concepts and in education research, qualities that prepare students for jobs in academia, education policy, or general science policy. He founded the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Utah (PERU), where he and a team of postdoctoral scholars and graduate and undergraduate students explore how graduate program policies impact students’ experiences; conduct long-term studies of the experience of women in physics and astronomy and of Students of Color in STEM programs; and seek to understand the professional network development and navigation of women and LGBT+ PhD physicists.

In discussing Barthelemy’s election as a fellow to the APS, two of his mentors, Geraldine L. Cochran and Tim Atherton, commented on his work: “Barthelemy has provided an excellent example for how research on the educational experiences of people from marginalized groups can center the voices of the research participants,” said Cochran, Associate Professor at Rutgers University. “Indeed, Dr. Barthelemy was among the first—if not the first—in physics education research to use Feminist Standpoint Theory in his research.”

“Fellowship is one of the highest honors that that American Physical Society can bestow and is normally reserved for scientists much further along in their careers,” said Atherton, Associate Professor of Physics at Tufts University. “Ramón’s election is a signature of the incredible esteem in which his fellow physicists hold him and points to the significance of his work. This kind of work is necessary to transform the culture of physics to fully include LGBTQ+ people. As one of these people myself, and as someone who has not always been included by the academic community, I’m thrilled that Ramón has been given this incredible honor.”

Barthelemy earned his Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics at Michigan State University and received his Master of Science and doctorate degrees in PER at Western Michigan University. “Originally, I went to graduate school for nuclear physics, but I discovered I was more interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics and astronomy. Unfortunately, there were very few women, People of Color, LGBT or first-generation physicists in my program,” said Barthelemy, who looked outside of physics to understand why.

Other awards:
In 2022, Earlier he received the 2022 WEPAN (Women in Engineering ProActive Network) Betty Vetter Research Award for notable achievement in research related to women in engineering.

In 2021, Barthelemy received the Doc Brown Futures Award, an honor that recognizes early career members who demonstrate excellence in their contributions to physics education and exhibit excellent leadership.

He received the 2020 Fulbright Finland award but wasn’t able to travel to Finland to give his lectures until 2022.

In 2020, he and his U colleagues Jordan Gerton and Pearl Sandick were awarded $200,000 from the National Science Foundation to complete a case study exploring the graduate program changes in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. In the same year, Barthelemy received a $350,000 Building Capacity in Science Education Research award to continue his longitudinal study on women in physics and astronomy and created a new study on People of Color in U.S. graduate STEM programs. Later, he received a $120,000 supplement to continue the work.

He also co-received a $500,000 grant with external colleagues Dr. Charles Henderson and Dr. Adrienne Traxler to study the professional network development and career pathways of women and LGBT+ PhD physicists in academia, the government, and private sectors. Lastly, Barthelemy was selected to conduct a literature review on LGBT+ scientists as a virtual visiting scholar by the ARC Network, an organization dedicated to improving STEM equity in academia.

In 2014, Barthelemy completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Jyväskylä, in Finland where he conducted research looking at student motivations to study physics in Finland. In 2015, he received a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy in the United States Department of Education and worked on science education initiatives in the Obama administration. After acting as a consultant for university administrations and research offices, he began to miss doing his own research and was offered a job as an assistant professor at the University of Utah.

first published @ physics.utah.edu

 

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Utah F.O.R.G.E.

Utah F.O.R.G.E.


The Utah FORGE Project

The Frontier Observatory for Geothermal Research

There is something deceptively simple about geothermal energy. The crushing force of gravity compacts the earth to the point where its molten metal center is 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Even thousands of miles out near the surface, the temperature is still hundreds of degrees.

In some places, that heat reaches the surface, either as lava flowing up through volcanic vents, or as steaming water bubbling up in hot springs. In those places, humans have been using geothermal energy since the dawn of time.

But what if we could drill down into the rock and, in essence, create our own hot spring? That is the idea behind “enhanced geothermal systems,” and the most promising such effort in the world is happening in Beaver County.

Called Utah FORGE (Frontier Observatory for Geothermal Research), the site 10 miles north of Milford is little more than a drill pad and a couple of buildings on Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land. But it is the U.S. Department of Energy’s foremost laboratory for enhanced geothermal research, and the University of Utah is the scientific overseer. Seven years ago, the U of U’s proposal won out in a national competition against three of the DOE’s own national laboratories.

“If you have to pick the best area in the country to build an EGS plant, you’re going to be driven to Milford. DOE recognized that in 2015,” said Joseph N. Moore, a University of Utah Professor with the Department of Geology & Geophysics and the principal investigator for Utah FORGE.

Professor Joseph N. Moore

Among the advantages:

  • It’s in a known area of thermal activity. Nearby is Roosevelt Hot Springs, and a small nearby geothermal plant has been producing electricity for about 30,000 homes for years.
  • It has hundreds of cubic miles hot granite below the surface with no water flowing through it.
  • There is accessible water that can’t be used for drinking or agriculture because it contains too many naturally occurring minerals. But that water can be used for retrieving heat from underground.
  • It has access to transmission lines. Beaver County is home to a growing amount of wind and solar power generation, helping access to consumers.

DOE has invested $50 million in FORGE, and now it’s adding another $44 million in research money. The U of U is soliciting proposals from scientists.

“These new investments at FORGE, the flagship of our EGS research, can help us find the most innovative, cost-effective solutions and accelerate our work toward wide-scale geothermal deployment and support President Biden’s ambitious climate goals,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

The idea is to drill two deep wells more than a mile down into solid granite that registers around 400 degrees. Then cold water is pumped down one well so hot water can be pulled out through the second well. One of those wells has been drilled, and the second is planned for next year.

But if it’s solid rock, how does the water get from one well to the other? The scientists have turned to a technology that transformed the oil and gas industry: hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” They are pumping water down under extremely high pressures to create or expand small cracks in the rock, and those cracks allow the cold water to flow across the hot rock to the second well. They have completed some hydraulic fracturing from the first well.

Moore is quick to point out that using a fracturing process for geothermal energy does not produce the environmental problems associated with oil and gas fracking, largely because it doesn’t generate dirty wastewater and gases. Further, the oil released in the fracturing can lubricate underground faults, and removing the oil and gas creates gaps, both of which lead to more and larger earthquakes.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm

The fracturing in enhanced geothermal does produce seismic activity that seismologists are monitoring closely, Moore said, but the circumstances are much different. In geothermal fracturing, there is only water, and it can be returned to the ground without contamination. And producing fractures in an isolated piece of granite is less likely to affect faults. The hope, he said, is that once there are enough cracks for sufficient flow from one pipe to the other, it can produce continuous hot water without further fracturing.

And it never runs out. Moore said that even 2% of the available geothermal energy in the United States would be enough the power the nation by itself.

This next round of $44 million in federal funding is about taking that oil and gas process and making it specific to enhanced geothermal. That includes further seismic study, and coming up with the best “proppant” — the material used to keep the fracture open. Oil and gas use fracking sand to keep the cracks open, and the higher temperatures of geothermal make that challenging.

“FORGE is a derisking laboratory,” said Moore, meaning the U of U scientists, funded by the federal government, are doing some heavy lifting to turn the theory of EGS into a practical clean-energy solution. He said drilling wells that deep costs $70,000 a day. They drill 10 to 13 feet per hour, and it takes six hours just to pull out a drill to change the bit, something they do every 50 hours. That early, expensive work makes it easier for private companies to move the technology into a commercially viable business. Moore said all of the research is in the public domain.

Moore said FORGE doesn’t employ many full-time employees in Beaver County at this point, but it has used local contractors for much of the work, and it has filled the county’s hotel rooms for occasional meetings. High school students have also been hired to help with managing core samples from the deep wells.

“They’ve collaborated really well with the town,” said Milford Mayor Nolan Davis. Moore and others have made regular presentations to his city council, and they’ve sponsored contests in the high school to teach students about geothermal energy. People in town, Davis said, are well aware that the world is watching Utah FORGE, and there is hope geothermal energy will become a larger presence if and when commercial development begins. “We hope they can come in and maybe build several small power plants.”

Davis also noted that the power from Beaver County’s solar and wind plants are already contracted to California. “We’d like to get some power we can keep in the county.”

 

by Tim Fitzpatrick, first published @ sltrib.com

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

 

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Nuclear Recycling

Nuclear Recycling


Spent nuclear fuels pose a major environmental concern. Can they be recycled?

A significant problem with the use of nuclear reactors is what’s left behind — the nuclear waste from spent fuel rods. Where to dispose of this waste has been the source of much controversy.

But instead of just burying the spent fuel rods, what if you could somehow recycle them to be used again? University of Utah researchers will be working with a team from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to develop an innovative yet simple process of recycling metal fuels for future advanced nuclear reactors. These reactors are designed to be safer than existing reactors, more efficient at producing energy, and cheaper to operate. The team was awarded a three-year, $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program for the project.

Michael Simpson

“With current light water-cooled nuclear reactors, you use the fuel for only about five years, then what do you do with it? Where do you dispose it? We currently have no place to put it other than on the site of the nuclear power plant that used it,” says University of Utah Materials Science and Engineering professor Michael Simpson, who will lead the U team supporting the project. “A better idea is to use a physical or chemical process to make the fuel usable in the reactor again.”

According to the Department of Energy, there is currently no permanent repository for spent radioactive fuel rods, so the more than 83,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are stored in more than 75 reactor sites around the U.S. in either steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers. They will stay there until a consolidated interim storage facility or permanent site is established.

A key step to solving this problem is to demonstrate and commercialize advanced nuclear reactors such as the sodium cooled fast reactor (SFR) that features metallic uranium fuel designed with recycling in mind. Simpson will collaborate with the INL team that originally conceived of the method, which involves a dynamic heat treatment of the spent fuel rods from SFRs. In theory this will cause unrecyclable waste to be separated from the fuel materials that can be used again. Simpson says the remaining waste that needs to be disposed of in this process would be at least an “order of magnitude” less in volume than the original untreated amount. Furthermore, they will be able to utilize the large fraction of fissionable material to produce power that would otherwise be thrown away.

“We reduce the volume of nuclear waste that has to be disposed of, and we get more energy in the long run,” he says.

The U team will develop a computational model of the separation of the different metals in the heating process and collect data from a new furnace system that will be designed and purchased with the funding from the grant to validate the model.

Spent nuclear fuel at the Hanford nuclear site.

Simpson expects the first advanced nuclear reactors that could use this recycling process could go online by the 2030s. Currently, there are 94 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. based on light water reactor technology that all told generate nearly 20% of the nation’s total energy each year. Some advanced reactors such as SFRs could use a fuel that is more suitable for recycling, as will be demonstrated in this project.

“This process will help pave the way for sustainable nuclear energy with minimal environmental impact and allow the U.S. to produce more energy while better addressing the global warming issue,” Simpson says. “We want to transition away from coal and natural gas to renewable and nuclear energy for producing electricity. This allows us to continue to use nuclear energy without worrying about this unsolved nuclear waste problem. Instead of just directly disposing it, we can recycle most of it and produce much less nuclear waste.”

The INL/University of Utah project is one of 11 to receive a total of $36 million for research from ARPA-E to increase the deployment and use of nuclear power as a reliable source of clean energy while limiting the amount of waste produced from advanced nuclear reactors.

This project is just the newest collaboration between researchers from the U’s College of Engineering and College of Mines and Earth Sciences with INL scientists who are developing new technologies for nuclear energy, communications, power grids, and more.

Last month, the University of Utah and INL announced a new formal research partnership between both institutions that will explore deeper research collaborations and expand opportunities for students, faculty, and researchers.

 

 

First published @ mse.utah.edu

 

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