US-Russian Scientists Cooperate in the Lab


AT Duke University, American physicist Karl Straub stands atop a massive concrete radiation shield and thanks Russia's defunct laser-weapons program. He points out key components from that program in a powerful research laser now taking shape in a laboratory here that will be used to probe living cells and superhard materials.

"These people know what they're doing," he says of his colleagues from the Budker Institute in Novosibirsk, who worked on technology to shoot down Western satellites. "It's a remarkable device; this thing is superb!"

You can hear similar enthusiasm around United States Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories these days as new partnerships develop between scientists who once were on opposite sides of the cold war. Along with the enthusiasm, there is the expectation that bringing unemployed Russian weapons scientists into the larger world of peaceful research will blunt temptations to take their weapons-making skills elsewhere.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico - the premier US nuclear-weapons lab - visiting Russian weapons scientists now work with American counterparts on nonsecret civilian projects.

They bring technology for generating enormous magnetic fields and powerful electric currents that Los Alamos scientist Irving Lindemuth says his group didn't know existed before the cold war ended.

When Los Alamos scientists visit the counterpart Russian weapons lab in the once-secret town of Sarov, they contribute sophisticated instrumentation and mathematical techniques their Russian colleagues have lacked.

"It's very much a two-way street," Dr. Lindemuth says. He adds that both sides are working toward "what we hope will be a long-term partnership."

At nearby Sandia National Laboratories, meanwhile, dozens of partnerships between DOE laboratories, Russian research institutions, and commercial firms are under way or being developed. Dennis Croessmann, who manages this International Partnership Program (IPP) at Sandia, also says that the Russians bring big benefits.

Swords into knife blades

He cites an IPP project to use a beam of ions (electrically charged atoms) to coat materials. It might coat a wear-resistant diamond skin on a knife blade, for example.

Dr. Croessmann says the Russians' skill and technology shaved a year off that project's development time. "That's not a small incremental benefit. It's a big jump benefit!" he exclaims.

Both the Russian and American governments encourage this trend toward scientific togetherness. They have signed a series of umbrella agreements that cover virtually all scientific fields and many types of cooperation, from individual relationships in university labs to full-scale industrial projects and building the international space station.

But it is in the partnerships involving weapons scientists where the self-interest of both countries shows through most clearly.

The first priority in the IPP program is nonproliferation of weapons technology, Croessmann says. He explains: "It's bringing people out into the open.... They're working in a collaborative atmosphere rather than being locked away."

Los Alamos's Lindemuth agrees, noting that "in addition to doing fun science, we're integrating our colleagues into the global scientific community."

Lindemuth adds that, for the Russian scientists at Sarov, this involves more than material rewards. He says that, for them, their work is their life. They had wondered what would happen when the Soviet Union collapsed. Now this collaboration with Los Alamos is giving them "some exciting work to do."

Bomb bursts of electricity

The Los Alamos scientists first contacted the Sarov group in response to an order in late 1991 from the White House National Security Council.

Both laboratories had worked for decades on using strong magnetic and electric fields to study phenomena at high energy densities.

Los Alamos generated its high fields using expensive banks of electrical-energy storage devices called capacitors. Lindemuth says that his group found that the Russians, who couldn't afford such equipment, had developed a cheaper and better way to generate the fields.

They use high explosives to compress magnetic fields so as to strengthen the fields and generate powerful electric currents. This destroys the equipment. But Lindemuth notes that scientists can run thousands of these one-shot experiments for the cost of a capacitor facility.

For a few billionths of a second, the shots can exceed the electrical generating capacity of the entire planet. Meanwhile, Lindemuth notes that "all kinds of things are going on" in experimental devices subjected to that power.

This is used for a wide range of studies in such fields as high-pressure chemistry, electronics, astrophysical phenomena, and hydrogen fusion.

It's all nonsecret peaceful research. Lindemuth says scientists from both sides are careful to stay away from each laboratory's secret areas. Also, he says that "we work real hard to make sure anything we do" has no weapons implications.

The work done under the International Partnership Program is less dramatic but has more immediate practical import. Croessmann notes that turning the shared US and Russian technology into commercial products makes formerly secret weapons-program research done by locked-away scientists available to consumers.

He points out that this is true for both sides. After all, he observes, "we were locked away too."

21st century materials

Under the IPP, which Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico authored, each agreement must include one or more DOE laboratories, one or more equivalent Russian research institutions, and one or more US companies.

Several major partnerships are already under way in electronics. Others are being explored in oil and gas recovery technology and generating radioactive isotopes for medical uses.

One of the most promising areas is materials science, where some 35 small partnerships are working. Croessmann says that the program now wants to boost efforts in this area and will try to develop more large-scale partnerships.

He considers that this will be an important field in the 21st century. Noting that Russians are leaders in materials science, he says, "We can learn an amazing amount from them."

US-Russian Scientists Join Hands in Lab

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.