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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Celebrating 40 Years of Science & Discovery

PNNL research—making the world a better place

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has a history of making a difference. Over the past 35 years, R&D Magazine has awarded PNNL 66 of its coveted R&D 100 Awards for technologies that will make a difference to the human race.

"Mass spectrometry is probably our biggest success story in terms of R&D 100 awards," said Julie Gephart, who ran the Lab's R&D 100 program for seven years. "The Laboratory won five awards related to mass spectrometry between 1983 and 2003."

Optical Digital Recording

One mass spectrometry invention was later selected by R&D Magazine as one of the 40 most significant technologies of all time. PNNL's electrospray ionization interface, which won an R&D 100 Award in 1988, allowed researchers to combine two different analysis techniques—capillary electrophoresis and mass spectrometry—to create a process that allows mass spectrometers to be applied to problems that generally can't be addressed by other means. This process is now used routinely in biotechnology, biological research and a range of pharmaceutical applications.

PNNL's most commercially successful award-winning invention, the optical digital recording, won an R&D 100 Award in 1974. The optical digital recording was the first technology to allow information to be stored as a track of tiny dots. This technique now is used by major manufacturers of compact discs.

Knife Blade Detector

Inspired by a conversation between two dads at a soccer game, the knife blade failure detector is a wireless acoustic system that identifies knife failures in food processing equipment in less than a second. The detector earned PNNL engineers and the Lamb-Weston Technical Research Center an R&D 100 Award in 2000 and now saves food-processing plants millions of dollars each year in the production of French fries and other processed food.

Optically Stimulated Luminescence

A technology that earned an R&D 100 Award in 1992 is now protecting workers from radiation in offices, hospitals, factories and nuclear waste sites. Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) is a dosimetry technique that measures radiation using light at or below room temperature. Earlier measurement methods relied on high temperatures. Following their success with the OSL process for personnel dosimetry, PNNL researchers began exploring other uses for the technology, including medical equipment sterilization and food irradiation. The Sunna Dosimeter, which won an RD 100 Award in 2000, is based on scientific discoveries made with the OSL process.

Radio Frequency Tags

Intellifit Systems

Radio frequency tags are small, inexpensive tags used to identify, inventory and track items. As a result of advances made by PNNL engineers in the 1990s, groups of items can be inventoried in minutes instead of days, and the exact location, serial number, warranty and purchase date of a specific item can be determined at any time. Their work won an R&D 100 Award in 2001 and led to a spin-off company that manufactures the tags.

A holographic imaging system developed by PNNL and Pennsylvania-based Intellifit not only won an R&D 100 Award in 2004 but also was chosen by R&D Magazine as the Most Promising New Technology of 2004. The Intellifit System bounces harmless radio waves off a fully clothed person, generating accurate body measurements that can identify best-fitting sizes and apparel brands for people. Intellifit has begun placing the systems nationwide.

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