The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA, has been operated by Battelle and its predecessors since the lab’s inception in 1965. For more than 50 years, PNNL has advanced the frontiers of science and engineering, making fundamental scientific discoveries and solving problems in energy, the environment, and national security.
PNNL is the DOE’s premier chemistry, environmental sciences, and data analytics national laboratory, and is home to the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), one of DOE’s scientific user facilities. PNNL researchers provide national leadership in four areas: deepening our understanding of climate science, inventing the future power grid, preventing nuclear proliferation, and speeding environmental remediation. Other areas in which PNNL makes important contributions include energy storage, micro-bial biology, and cybersecurity.
Technologies developed by PNNL researchers have had a far-reaching effect on our daily lives, and on advancing science. In 1969, for example, PNNL was the only Northwest organization chosen by NASA to analyze lunar material collected from the first Apollo mission to the Moon.
Biologists and materials scientists created a porous substance called Void Metal Composite (VMC) in 1971. Its ability to develop a “living union” between bone and prosthetic devices by bone ingrowth enabled VMC to anchor artificial teeth and femoral head prostheses. It also could be surgically implanted and used as a splint for badly broken bones.
In 1974, PNNL invented a technique called optical digital recording that stores information as a track of dots about one micron in diameter. This innovation served as the critical design element for compact discs and players manufactured worldwide.
The award-winning Portable Blood Irradiator developed at PNNL in 1983 was the first fully portable device for continuous irradiation of blood. The device showed promise in suppressing early rejection of organ and tissue transplants by continuously irradiating a patient’s blood. And in 1988, engineers developed a $2.5 million robotic mannequin — so humanlike, it sweats — for the U.S. Army to test protective clothing.
In 1989, engineers developed a millimeter-wave holographic imaging system that rapidly identified hidden weapons, explosives, and other contraband — even plastic, ceramic, and other non-metallic weapons — through clothing. Today, the technology is used in personnel scanning systems at airports around the world, and has been adapted for other uses including within retail clothing stores.
RubberCycle™ addressed the problem of what to do with stockpiled tires. In 1996, scientists invented a bioprocess using sulfur-loving microorganisms that change the surface chemistry of waste tire rubber, enabling it to bond with virgin rubber. This cost-effective method of producing vulcanized rubber products such as tires performed better than those made of new rubber alone.
In 1999, scientists developed a new way to make plastic virtually impermeable so it could be used to replace glass in new display technologies. Using plastics instead of glass would allow laptop computer monitors, cellphones, and other flat-panel displays to be thinner, more rugged, and lighter-weight. The product is incorporated into many commercial products.
The Glyph™ is a three-dimensional headset display that contains PNNL-developed virtual retinal technology that’s easier to read. The technology, developed in 2014, was commercialized for military applications to improve the sight of soldiers in dark battlefields, and aid with piloting armored or unmanned vehicles. It also shows promise for applications such as surgery and virtual training.
Today, PNNL researchers are making discoveries that change the way we view the world. In climate science, for example, PNNL is studying how pollution affects storm clouds, and the regional impacts of climate change on snowpack, which in turn affects agriculture and hydroelectric power production. Terrestrial ecosystems and the role of microbes in the carbon cycle also are being investigated.
Expertise in materials science, catalysis, and high-performance computing enables PNNL to develop new, large-scale energy-storage solutions that are essential for incorporating wind and solar into the electric grid. At the same time, the lab is leading a national effort that will transform the U.S. electric grid in support of a cleaner, more energy-efficient economy. The recently opened Systems Engineering Laboratory will house these activities and provide a state-of-the-art facility for collaborating with industry and others.
For more than four decades, PNNL has advanced the science of nuclear materials analysis and ultra-trace detection. The capability enables extraction of information from the tiniest amount of radioactive material. PNNL scientists were able to provide critical analysis and advice to the U.S. and Japanese governments in the hours following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The same expertise is being exploited by the fundamental physics community in its search for dark matter.
PNNL scientists and engineers move their ideas out of the laboratory and into the commercial world, often in partnership with companies that license the technology. In all, PNNL people or technologies have found their way into more than 150 companies.
PNNL offers scientific researchers access to unique equipment housed in state-of-the-art facilities as well as on-site experts to help visiting researchers take advantage of and make best use of the capabilities. Scientists also can collaborate with PNNL scientists and engineers who can help advance scientific research.
Applied Process Engineering Laboratory (APEL) – This eastern Washington technology business startup facility, sponsored in part by PNNL, provides engineering and manufacturing-scale space, and chemical, biological, and electronic laboratories and equipment for developing, validating, and commercializing new products. Entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists can access this facility.