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IT to Fight Terror

Los Alamos National Laboratory focuses its science on homeland defense.

By Bob Brewin
September 9, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Los Alamos National Laboratory, which developed the atomic bomb that helped end World War II, has since Sept. 11 focused the scientific expertise of its 7,500 employees on homeland defense and the war on terrorism while continuing its mission of nuclear weapons research.

The Los Alamos, N.M.-based laboratory, which is owned by the Department of Energy and operated by the University of California, is tapping into its expertise in everything from quantum physics to computer science. Research is backed by massive supercomputers, including a 30-trillion-operations-per-second cluster due to go online by year's end.

Los Alamos isn't looking for immediate results. Rather, it's applying its resources in arcane sciences to develop tools and even products that can be applied years down the road, though it will also commercially spin off promising systems quicker.

For example, according to Terry Hawkins, leader of the laboratory's nonproliferation and internal security division, Los Alamos is developing a method to detect biological agents such as anthrax by combining a biological antigen with a computer chip. The antigen, Hawkins says, "acts the same as a human cell" in detecting the presence of an agent. The antigen is housed in a double-layer membrane formed from lipids, a class of insoluble organic compounds that are constituents of living cells.

Electrical current in the membrane passed to the chip could give a user an instant readout of the type of biological agent it has detected. Hawkins says Los Alamos has already developed a system that can detect the potentially deadly Hanta virus, which is prevalent in mice in the Southwest, and he believes that in time it may be possible to develop a portable, programmable device that can detect a number of viruses. Such a tool could also play a significant role in helping public health agencies battle diseases such as the common flu, he adds.

Deborah Leishman heads a knowledge modeling team at Los Alamos that helped develop a tool called EpiSims for simulating the spread of epidemics - natural or terrorist-induced - in a large urban area. She says the tool will help public health agencies integrate data from various sources, such as emergency rooms around a metropolitan area, into a database that will provide insights that can't be gleaned from single data points.

Los Alamos developed EpiSims as a spin-off from an even larger program called Transportation Analysis Simulation System (TranSims) designed to model the ebb, flow and social interactions of people in a large city. Leishman says TranSims can help emergency management agencies devise evacuation plans for cities that don't have them, such as Washington.

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