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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Celebrating 40 Years of Science & Discovery

Four decades of "cool" inventions

When Pacific Northwest National Laboratory opened its doors in 1965, the first moon landing was still four years away. The Beatles were heard everywhere—on vinyl records. Compact discs were still decades away. Yet PNNL scientists and engineers contributed to both the Apollo moon mission and development of the CD—two of the many innovations it has pioneered during the last 40 years.

The Moonlight Special, a robotic, maze-running mouse, demonstrated PNNL's abilities in mechanical engineering, computer science and advanced physics.

In 1965, a PNNL scientist looked for a better method of sound recording and playback. He believed sound and images could be reproduced digitally but needed to find a way to store the massive amounts of data. Storage systems at the time included punch cards or magnetic tape, both slow and cumbersome. This scientist discovered some of the critical elements for optical digital recording—tiny optical dots that represent digital information and a microscopic lens and light source system that allow a computer to record the optical information and play it back. Both are the basis for today's CDs.

Later that decade, NASA asked PNNL to analyze moon rocks collected from the Apollo program. Scientists used cutting-edge technology to measure radionuclides in lunar rocks and also studied lunar material for the Soviet Union's Luna 24 moon missions.

In the 1970s, scientists developed a process for converting sewage sludge and agricultural wastes to useful petroleum products. Others, looking for a solution to keep vegetation out of buried, radioactive waste sites, developed polymer pellets containing herbicides that release gradually over 100 years. The same slow-release concept is now being used commercially.

Manny was an anthropomorphic robot that reproduced human motions.

Capabilities in mechanical engineering, computer science and advanced physics were showcased when researchers invented the robotic "Moonlight Mice." Called moonlight because the team created them in their off-hours, the three mechanical mice could speedily complete an 8-foot by 8-foot maze.

Robotics research again took center stage in the 1980s when scientists created Manny, the robotic mannequin, to test clothing used to protect soldiers from chemicals, extreme temperatures and other hostile environments. Manufacturers previously tested protective clothing on mannequins or humans. Manny was an anthropomorphic robot that could reproduce human motions such as walking, sitting and bending, showing the effects of human motion on protective clothing.

A honey bee wears a radiofrequency "backpack" that will track its movement and relay information in the search for hidden explosives.

In the 1990s an invention called RubberCycleTM addressed the problem of what to do with the roughly two billion waste tires stockpiled in the United States. Scientists developed a bioprocess using sulfur-loving microorganisms that change the surface chemistry of waste tire rubber, enabling it to bond with virgin rubber. This created a cost-effective method of producing vulcanized rubber products, such as tires, that perform better than those made of new rubber alone.

In 1994, PNNL again contributed to the nation's space program and to the health of airline passengers when it provided NASA detection technology to gather first-of-a-kind data on the types and amounts of cosmic radiation to which astronauts are exposed in space and that airline passengers receive in flight. The detectors were developed for U.S. and Russian space missions and tested on airplanes to track radiation levels on commercial flights.

Customs inspectors and international border agents are using the PASS inspection device to identify contents within sealed containers.

Flights of the honeybee were the focus as the '90s came to a close. PNNL scientists teamed with entomologists to research whether bees fitted with radio frequency tags could be used as living chemical detectors to find buried explosives such as land mines. They modified miniature radio frequency tags developed for remote inventory tracking into tiny "backpacks" that were attached to bees to track their travels to and from electronically monitored hives. Bees are useful data collectors because their mop-like bodies soak up contaminants they touch as they search for pollen. They are particularly sensitive to chemicals used to produce explosives such as TNT, which is released by buried land mines.

By the early 2000s, PNNL's inventions included technologies to prevent terrorism and support homeland security. Scientists developed the Product Acoustic Signature System (PASS), a handheld device that uses ultrasound pulses to examine the contents of sealed containers without having to open them. They also developed Starlight, an information visualization system software that uncovers key relationships hidden in large, complex, dynamic information collections and could be used to identify terrorist threats.

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