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PNNL's holiday gifts include science and technology for the nation

Published in the Tri-City Herald December 25, 2017, authored by Lab Director Steven Ashby

PNNL's holiday gifts include science and technology for the nation

December 25, 2017
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald

  • Frannie Smith

    In support of STEM education, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researcher Frannie Smith spent a day with Mid-Columbia teachers, explaining how to enrich land and water science curriculum in the classroom and providing a scientist's perspective on how to conduct field experiments. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

  • Radioactive waste simulant melting into glass at high temperatures in a lab-scale melter

    Nope, it's not chestnuts roasting over an open fire, but a radioactive waste simulant melting into glass at high temperatures in a lab-scale melter. Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are studying the efficiency of processing nuclear waste from Hanford reactors into glass for safe, long-term storage. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

  • Michael Poplawski

    Lighting engineer Michael Poplawski and his colleagues at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Connected Lighting Test Bed in Portland conduct independent studies and share their results to help industry and other stakeholders understand and advance smart, energy-efficient lighting systems. Photo by Andrea Starr, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


This time of year finds many of us busy with holiday shopping. While the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory might not be developing the latest video games or hoverboards, we are working hard to deliver a few presents you might like.

A safer world: World peace is a tall order, but PNNL is doing its part through our contributions to nuclear nonproliferation. We also are keeping our citizens safe by developing sensors that can detect chemical and biological weapons, as well as clandestine explosives. For example, we recently developed a portable screening device that can inspect sealed cargo containers and determine their contents in real time to identify a host of hazardous or illegal substances. Another technology, an award-winning acoustic gunshot detector, offers the potential to automatically lock down a business or school — and notify authorities — as soon as a shot is detected.

A clean environment: PNNL has supported the Hanford cleanup mission since our founding more than 50 years ago. As I tell stakeholders in Washington, D.C., we care because we live here. Our researchers have been working with Hanford contractors to address some of the technical challenges and safety concerns presented by the design and construction of the vitrification plant. For example, our knowledge of glass formulation and processing is second to none, and is being used to enable the long-term and safe storage of radioactive waste.

Disease prevention: PNNL researchers are applying their expertise in biology and big data to tackle some of the scariest diseases on the planet. We are studying the Ebola virus in the hopes of preventing epidemics like we saw in West Africa. We also are working with colleagues in the Northwest to improve our understanding of cancer and other diseases. One award-winning technology developed by PNNL researchers can quickly identify and measure different molecules in biological samples as small as a single cell — and do it 1,000 times faster than current methods. A startup company has licensed the technology to create a compact version for use by doctors.

Cheaper energy: PNNL scientists and engineers are exploring new ways to produce clean energy and to improve energy efficiency. Our chemists are seeking to turn waste carbon into useful chemicals and fuels. Our materials scientists are designing metal-organic frameworks that better adsorb refrigerants for use in more efficient cooling systems. And we have a state-of-the-art facility in Portland to study the emerging field of connected lighting. Here we are shedding light on how efficient LEDs can interact with sensors, microcomputers and other components in myriad applications.

Future STEM workers: Battelle and DOE share a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — education, recognizing its importance to the future competitiveness of our nation. PNNL employees readily give of their time and talents to prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. We host scores of teachers and hundreds of students every year. While some are working on their PhDs, it is particularly gratifying to see the many young people who come to PNNL unsure of what they want to do and leave with a passion for science and engineering. They are our future.

At PNNL, we are proud to be part of this community, and we do our best to make you proud. We are grateful for your support. We also value our partnership with DOE, the advocacy of our elected officials and the engagement of our many collaborators. And, of course, I am thankful for the dedication and creativity of our terrific employees. They make PNNL the great place it is. Who could want anything more?

Best wishes for a happy and safe holiday season!

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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