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Scientific Mission: Reduce the environmental effects of human activities and create sustainable systems

Globally, environmental concerns often take a back seat to economics. Engines of the economy -- industrial processes, fuel for transportation, and overall growth -- drive our society. Adverse impacts to human and ecological health are evident from the declining quality of air, water and land at locations around the world. The current situation is unsustainable, and the deadline for altering a collision course with environmental disaster is fast approaching.

To address these environmental challenges while promoting a healthy economy, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is providing the science and leadership to

  • Reduce long-term environmental effects and accelerate cost-effective cleanup of contaminated nuclear sites
  • Predict the response of the Earth's climate and ecosystem to environmental stress and prevent impacts on human and ecosystem health
  • Promote sustainable systems that reduce our environmental footprint.

Legacy Waste

Nicknamed fast glass, a more efficient formula for vitrifying radioactive waste, developed by a team of researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Savannah River Technology Center, is expected to yield significantly higher melter throughput and higher waste loading (ratio of waste to frit), while maintaining adequate quality of the glass product.
Nicknamed "fast glass," a more efficient formula for vitrifying radioactive waste, developed by a team of researchers at PNNL and the Savannah River Technology Center.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is committed to completing cleanup of its contaminated nuclear weapons manufacturing and testing sites. To do this, the Department must tackle recalcitrant problems in subsurface contamination and radioactive waste processing. The purpose of targeting subsurface issues is protecting nearby rivers and aquifers and the human population dependent on them. The goal of targeting nuclear waste processing issues is twofold: close former nuclear sites and enable nuclear power as a viable option. PNNL is helping the Department solve these problems; here are a few examples.

Science in the subsurface: PNNL's work will allow a Hanford contractor to build a 300-foot subsurface chemical barrier near the banks of the Columbia River, where the groundwater is contaminated with strontium. This chemical barrier will be built from calcium phosphate, also known as apatite, to bind the strontium for hundreds of years, long enough for it to naturally decay. Early test injections of a chemical barrier in 2006 showed enough promise in trapping strontium for the project to proceed in the spring of 2007.

Waste process science: PNNL is providing an enduring scientific and technical role in key issues with design and process performance of Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant for DOE and Bechtel National, Inc. (BNI). PNNL is leading the prototypical testing of plant designs for pretreatment and ultrafiltration systems, and the tank mixing and piping systems. The testing is being performed to resolve issues that will significantly improve the plant's operation.

PNNL will participate in technical reviews of the detailed design and fabrication of the equipment being built, and will begin to prepare Processing Development Laboratory-West (PDL-West) to receive the testing equipment. This action represents a significant investment by BNI and DOE’s Office of River Protection in PNNL capabilities and facilities.

Human and ecosystem health


Understanding the hyporehic zone, where river water and groundwater mix, is important in prediciting ecosystem damage.

Human health and ecosystem health are intertwined, each dependant on the other for sustainability and survival. Over the last century, human activities associated with population growth and industrialization have had the greatest negative impact on the health and quality of our environment. Ecosystems are subjected to environmental stressors on a daily basis, such as water or air pollution, global warming or the degradation and loss of habitat from economic development. As part of the ecosystem, humans are subjected to these same stressors with significant health consequences.

Whether we are looking at the ecosystem or humans, we can develop a predictive understanding of the impacts by identifying and quantifying processes or functions that are triggered by environmental stressors.

PNNL researchers specialize in assessing ecosystem health. A key asset is PNNL's Sequim Marine Research Operations, on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State. Researchers at this complex use state-of-the-art equipment to advance understanding of marine environments. For our clients, we

  • Understand the effects of pollutants on marine and freshwater organisms
  • Measure trace substances in the marine environment and develop tests to determine safe levels of the substances
  • Assess and restore marine and coastal habitats
  • Use satellite information and other remote sensing techniques to map, measure and model what happens in the ocean and estuarine environments.

While the assessments deal with the environment as it is, PNNL researchers are also looking to develop ways of treating diseases before the symptoms appear, essentially predicting human and ecological diseases before they’re visible to the human eye.

We are conducting this work through the Environmental Biomarkers Initiative. The initiative is advancing science and creating technologies to predict early organism and ecosystem damage by using environmental biomarkers. These biomarkers are collections of responses -- such as proteins expressed or produced -- inside a cell or organism which, when examined together, present a unique pattern of molecular change and identify a specific exposure or response.

The Laboratory's work in this initiative is based on our capabilities in obtaining high-quality genomic, proteomic, metabonomics and lipid data and integrating it with analytical chemistry data, computational statistics and biological tools.

Sustainable systems

To sustain an average person in the United States requires about 24 acres of ecologically productive land, sea and other water mass, more acreage per person than any other nation. It would take about six Earths to sustain the world's population if other nations filled the same footprint.

To reduce our footprint, we need more sustainable systems. A sustainable system is a set of engineered and ecological processes that can economically meet the needs of society while maintaining the integrity of ecosystems in the long term.

At PNNL, we are working to develop

  • Sustainable water management through a systems approach
  • Efficient resource use through the application of chemistry and engineering
  • Prediction of climate change impacts on our ecosystems to enable appropriate actions that minimize impacts.
fish ladders
"We’ll know the true value of water when it's gone," Benjamin Franklin

Managing water in a sustainable manner: In the Northwest, water supports agriculture, hydropower, recreation and, of course, serves as a hatchery for salmon and other iconic species. As the region changes due to population growth and climate change, we face water quality and quantity problems.

One way in which PNNL is addressing such problems is by developing an integrated regional water, energy and sustainable ecosystem research agenda to assist regional stakeholders in making better water allocation decisions. This approach embraces the Laboratory’s signature capabilities in integrated earth and energy systems modeling, water treatment technologies and scientific decision support systems.

The Joint Northwest Water Institute, an association of PNNL, Idaho National Laboratory and Oregon State University, is developing a prototype integrated water resource information management system for the Columbia Basin. This will provide a scientific foundation for assessing, developing and conserving resources across the Northwest, including the Puget Sound and coastal ecosystems.

Using resources efficiently: Chemical transformations are at the heart of energy production and consumption, and catalysis lies at the heart of reducing environmental impacts as well as efficient and effective use of our current energy sources and developing alternative energy sources.

Catalysis Science and Applications
Catalysis research is critical in developing more resource-efficient industrial processes.

Through our Institute for Integrated Catalysis and other venues, we provide a fundamental understanding of catalytic materials and chemical reactions, and apply this understanding to developing industrial and environmental solutions. For example, we recently received a U.S. patent for textured catalysts; these new materials speed reactions in aqueous solutions, addressing the problem of traditional catalysts that use aluminas, silicas or clays as supports -- they rapidly degrade in many aqueous systems.

Predicting climate change to minimize impacts: To make decisions that promote a sustainable economy and environment, government agencies and industries must understand the sensitivity of the climate system, particularly in response to greenhouse gases and aerosols, and make accurate, unbiased predictions about future changes it might bring. PNNL assists its clients by providing accurate, unbiased information to understand the impact of climate change and develop adaptation and mitigation strategies. PNNL does this work through its Fundamental and Computational Sciences Directorate, including its Atmospheric Science and Global Change Division and Joint Global Change Research Institute, and as part of DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program and Atmospheric Systems Research program. The Laboratory also works on other climate-related programs and projects.

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