In 1951, the first nuclear reactor in Idaho was built, starting a legacy at what is now Idaho National Laboratory (INL). INL is the site where 52 pioneering nuclear reactors were designed and constructed, including the first reactor to generate usable amounts of electricity. It was here that nuclear-generated electricity first powered an American community.
INL is part of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) complex of national laboratories. The laboratory performs work in each of the strategic goal areas of the DOE: energy, national security, science, and environment. INL is managed by Battelle Energy Alliance for the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy.
Today, INL leads initiatives to develop next-generation reactor technologies, advanced fuel cycles, and space nuclear power systems. The lab includes assets such as a utility-scale electric power grid for improving grid reliability and security, a wireless communications user facility for commercial and government-sponsored research, and key capabilities for performing cyber and control system research, explosives impact analysis, armor development, and radiological training.
Homeland Security and Defense
Threats posed by global terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear materials, and the vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructure have continued to evolve in complexity. INL's isolated site in Idaho Falls, testbed infrastructure, and applied science focus make it a major center for national security technology development and demonstration. The lab's national and homeland security programs protect nuclear material from proliferation, advance the nation's warfighters, address secure communications channels for first responders, and improve the security and resilience of critical infrastructure.
Consumers, commercial industry, first responders, and the government are adopting wireless services ranging from social networks to location-based services and high-speed data communications at an ever-increasing rate. This virtually invisible, critical network plays a vital role in commerce, public safety, and increasingly, national security. INL enables the evolution and security of this complex system by mastering its interde-pendencies and mitigating the associated challenges.
INL applies capabilities in vulnerability analysis and full-scale explosives testing facilities to create a unique location for developing and testing new protective systems for military forces, law enforcement agencies, homeland security personnel, and industry partners.
Lab engineers and materials scientists are designing, validating, and manufacturing unique armor prototypes that increase protection while simultaneously reducing weight and production costs. Over the past 25 years, many of the lab's armor designs have been used around the world to safeguard people, vehicles, and facilities; for example, INL manufactures the battle-proven armor for the U.S. Army's Abrams battle tanks. The lab has designed and validated lightweight, bullet-trapping armor for law enforcement watercraft; outfitted remote weapons systems with large-caliber, ballistic-resistant protection; and hardened critical facilities to defend against explosively formed projectiles (EFP) and shaped-charges threats.
INL's approach to armor design includes materials research, armor development, advanced modeling and simulation, testing, and evaluation — all of which can be done on one secure site, allowing for rapid armor prototypes and limited-run productions. The laboratory's armor and materials research supports federal customers including the Departments of Energy, Defense, and Homeland Security, along with leading defense industry providers.
Energy and the Environment
In the areas of energy and the environment, INL addresses energy production challenges with contributions in renewable energy integration, transportation transformation, water utilization, energy-critical materials, biomass feedstock assembly, and advanced manufacturing. Advancements include testing and engineering of energy systems, transportation systems, advanced manufacturing for industrial competitiveness, and sustainable safeguards for the environment during energy recovery.
The Energy and Environment Science and Technology Directorate (EEST) is responding with innovations in transportation systems, clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and environmental sustainability. INL works to optimize hybrid energy systems that expand the nation's integrated energy portfolio, invent new materials and processes for nuclear systems, innovate with advanced intelligent systems, and integrate renewable energy sources to ensure more power is available.
Advanced transportation - Increasing greenhouse gas emissions are driving efforts to modernize transportation with new vehicles, fuels, and manufacturing standards. The lab's on-the-road vehicle systems analysis and data integration make it possible to validate and improve industry designs while helping establish U.S. and international standards for testing, regulation, and performance. EEST researches fuel cells and hydrogen systems to provide energy storage alternatives.
The Biomass Feedstock National User Facility is helping industry deploy biomass-based fuels and chemicals by providing proof-of-concept and demonstration tests. The user facility houses more than 70,000 samples representing more than 90 types of crops.
Clean energy integration - Electricity systems with 50 to 75 percent average renewable energy content can be technically and economically challenging to stabilize. The ability to model, simulate, and test system dynamics at multiple scales has become critical. Laboratory researchers design, test, and demonstrate microgrids and systems for enhancing grid stability. The lab's work is helping accelerate cost-effective integration of nuclear power with renewable energy sources, including geothermal, wind, water, and solar power.
Advanced manufacturing - INL researchers are developing new processes and technologies to reduce the lifecycle energy consumption of manufactured goods, and to ensure critical material supplies. INL's goal is to reduce waste by more than half through increased recovery, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling. INL's Specific Manufacturing Capability (SMC) provides independent technical evaluations and solutions to manufacturing, engineering, and material science for a variety of programs and customers.
Advanced modeling and simulation capabilities at the lab foster discoveries about how a material's structure, properties, and performance are linked. INL research includes investigation of mechanical properties, physical properties, microstructural characterization, and nondestructive evaluation.
Environmental sustainability - INL helps ensure nuclear materials from around the world are safely recovered, transported, and stored. The lab has expertise in chemical separations, solvent extraction, membrane technology, water cleanup, and systems engineering. Technologies are being developed to improve recovery from consumer products, mining processes, and coal fly ash.
Radioisotope power - INL research has been aiding and advancing space exploration for years. INL scientists are developing technology, for example, that could help the next generation of Mars rovers look for signs of life on the Red Planet. The lab also helps build and test radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) — devices that convert radioactive decay into electricity to power deep-space probes. And INL researchers play key roles in designing the small nuclear reactors that could someday power manned outposts on the Moon or Mars.
Radioisotope power systems (RPSs) provide the power to operate spacecraft or rover systems such as scientific instruments, robotic arms, computers, radio, and drive systems. They are fueled with plutonium-238, which gives off a steady supply of heat as the material decays. No moving parts are required to convert this heat into electricity. Thermocouples are used to create voltage from the temperature difference between the hot interior and the cold exterior in deep space or on a planet's surface. The power supply created using an RPS is steady, reliable, and lasts for decades — the systems included on the Voyager I and II spacecraft launched in 1977 are still operating and sending back data from well beyond the edges of the solar system.
For more than 50 years, RPSs have safely and reliably fueled two dozen U.S. missions to explore the Moon, most of the planets in the solar system, and beyond. These nuclear-enabled missions are provided with safe, reliable power where solar power cannot be used due to proximity or distance from the Sun, or chemical fuels cannot be used due to their weight. The RPS that provides more than 200 watts of electric power to the Pluto New Horizons spacecraft was the first one assembled and tested at INL. It successfully completed a flyby of Pluto in July 2015 after a 9½-year flight. The second RPS assembled and tested for a flight mission at INL was for the Curiosity rover's exploration of Mars that began in 2012. The same type of RPS powering Curiosity will be assembled and tested at INL for the next nuclear-enabled space mission, Mars 2020.
Simulation software - Modeling and simulation has now become standard practice in nearly every branch of science. INL's MOOSE (Multiphysics Object Oriented Simulation Environment) framework now makes modeling and simulation more accessible to a broad array of scientists. MOOSE enables simulation tools to be developed in a fraction of the time previously required. The tool has revolutionized predictive modeling, especially in the field of nuclear engineering, allowing nuclear fuels and materials scientists to develop numerous applications that predict the behavior of fuels and materials under operating and accident conditions. Scientists who don't have in-depth knowledge of computer science can now develop an application that they can “plug and play” into the MOOSE simulation platform. In essence, MOOSE solves the mathematical equations embodied by the model.
Data security - Confidential data and proprietary technology are challenging to safeguard when contained in easily portable devices such as cellphones, laptops, tablets, and other transient electronics. Although technology exists that is intended to wipe data from phones and tablets, in actual use, data may not always be completely eradicated. Sometimes it would be preferable to physically destroy a device rather than let it fall into the wrong hands. INL researchers are investigating ways to conclusively destroy data and circuitry when a device is lost, stolen, or becomes obsolete to protect sensitive data and proprietary technology from unauthorized access.
INL developed a patent-pending energetic potting material that will ignite upon command and burn until potted electronics are destroyed and data on them is no longer accessible. Energetic potting material will protect devices during normal use just as conventional potting material would, but when the device is no longer needed or has been stolen or lost, the energetic components can be ignited to destroy the material and the device. Ignition and destruction could occur by intentional detonation or be set to be triggered by a signal indicating an unauthorized user is attempting access, such as a set number of incorrect password attempts or the device housing being forced open.
A self-protecting electronic circuit was developed that includes energetic material within the substrate of the circuit itself. Electronic circuitry, including initiation circuitry, would be integrated into the energetic substrate. Ignition of the energetic component of the circuit would result in burning, melting, and/or shattering the circuit to the extent that the circuit could not be repaired, data could not be recovered, the circuit could not be reverse-engineered, and the original form could not be deciphered, repaired, or replicated. In addition, because the energetic material would be part of the substrate, it could not be removed without destroying the circuit.
The Hard Disk Drive (HDD) Destroyer permanently and completely destroys hard drives and data. The portable, easy-to-use device uses cartridges of pyrotechnic material to melt and deposit metal directly onto the hard drive platen, piercing the hard drive case, destroying magnetic particles on the platen, heating the platen to a temperature that will destroy all stored data, and melting holes into the platen. HDD Destroyer operation may be triggered by nonelectric means in the event of a power outage.
Cellphone-based radiation warning - One of the most harrowing prospects faced by homeland security and law enforcement personnel is the threat of radioactive contamination being intentionally dispersed in highly populated areas such as large metropolitan regions, sporting events, and tourist locations. INL has developed CellRAD, a wireless, advanced nuclear radiation detection software that runs on an Android cellphone.
Gamma rays interact with the camera system on the phone and produce small traces of illuminated pixels in the camera image. In order to see these events, the lens is covered so that visible light does not get to the camera sensor. This data enables the phone to determine the strength of radiation source. With the additional computational power available on a server, INL developed algorithms that enable approximate energy levels and more accurate dose levels of the radiation to be determined. While this cannot identify the exact nuclide, it provides additional data on what the radiation source could be. The pictures, location, and time stamp information are stored on the cellphone until they are transmitted over the cellular network, or could be stored until a WiFi network is available.
Oil spill cleanup - Current techniques used to clean up oil spills — removing several inches of topsoil, high-pressure water cannons, solvents, and collecting oil by hand — are expensive and hard on the environment. Plus, it can take decades for ecosystems to recover to their pre-spill condition. INL researchers developed a Trace Element Humate Surfactant (TEHS) — an inexpensive, environmentally friendly way to clean up oil and other hydrocarbon spills using a mixture of microbes and organic acids.
Humates - Organic acids such as humic acid and fulvic acid are found in soil rich with organic matter. These acids undergo a chemical reaction with oils, turning them into fatty acids and sugars. The microbes utilize hydrocarbons as a food source then die off once the hydrocarbon is consumed. The resulting mixture could be released out of firefighting aircraft or sprayed out of hoses.
TEHS could also be used to contain and consume oil spills on open ocean, lakes, and wetlands since the surfactant carrier floats on water. TEHS could expand beyond hydrocarbons to include remediation of heavy metals and other pollutants that could be susceptible to this type of microbial remediation.
Nano-structured steel - An INL project for hard-metal surface coatings for industrial applications in extreme wear environments led to nano-structured steel. The technology was licensed by NanoSteel, which partners with major automotive, oil and gas, mining, and steel production companies to create advanced high-strength sheet steel that allows the use of thinner, higher-strength parts.
INL has transferred technology to external partners for many years and offers partners access to the lab's science, people, and infrastructure. In support of U.S. industrial competitiveness, INL works to deploy and transfer the discoveries and inventions created at the lab. INL has hundreds of technologies and many unique capabilities that can be made available.