August 29, 2023

A Brave and Daring Poem by the IDREAM Team

“Poetry of Science Art Contest” entry aims to educate and inspire; public voting ends September 15

Aluminum crystals found in radioactive Hanford tank waste

Aluminum crystals found in radioactive Hanford tank waste (in pink) are encircled by the phrase "I dream" in languages inclusive of the native languages spoken by Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials (IDREAM) Energy Frontier Research Center team members. The original electron microscope image was captured by University of Notre Dame postdoc Hanna Hlushko while conducting IDREAM research. The illustration is part of the IDREAM submission to the DOE Office of Science’s Basic Energy Sciences 2023 Poetry in Science Contest.

(Composite image by Nathan Johnson | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Editor's Note, September 18, 2023: The Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences program, awarded first place to the IDREAM EFRC poem “Can a Scientist Dream it Alone?” in its juried contest. Learn more about the DOE “Poetry of Science Art Contest II” results.


The Oppenheimer movie release of 2023 has brought the Manhattan Project to the forefront of conversations across the country once again.

The World War II secret effort to make the nation’s first nuclear weapons included plutonium created in nuclear reactors at the Hanford Site near Richland, Washington, where Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is located. Plutonium production continued through the Cold War, ending in the late 1980s. Today, as a result of those plutonium production activities, there are 149 single-shell tanks and 28 double-shell tanks underground—containing about 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical wastes. The clean-up effort is the United States’ most complex environmental challenge.

Radiation chemists, geochemists, physicists, computational chemists, material scientists, and chemical engineers are working together to understand the chemical phenomena of the hazardous tank waste to solve processing issues. This multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team is called the Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials (IDREAM) Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC).

Beauty in complex chemistry

The contradicting beauty of the complex chemical nature of highly radioactive tank waste with the challenges it poses to today’s clean-up efforts inspired the poem, Can a Scientist Dream it Alone?

“We are motivated by real challenges—sludge,” said Gregory Schenter, physicist and Lab Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and deputy director of the IDREAM EFRC.

One third of the waste stored in the underground tanks includes sludge—a slurry the consistency of peanut butter that can’t be easily dissolved with water—in which gibbsite crystals, an aluminum hydroxide mineral, are commonly found.

“Our surprises have outnumbered our pre-conceived ideas,” said Schenter. “We have grown together, and are learning from others.”

Vote for People’s Choice Award

The IDREAM team has poetically shared its research in the Department of Energy’s 2023 Poetry of Science Art Contest, sponsored by the Office of Science’s Basic Energy Sciences program.

The contest aims to educate, inspire, and entertain audiences about the extraordinary science, innovation, and people in the DOE’s Energy Frontier Research Centers, Energy Innovation Hubs, and Computational Materials and Chemical Sciences programs. The IDREAM EFRC, created in 2016, has led to several basic science discoveries in support of legacy waste environmental challenges.

Members of the public can read IDREAM’s full submission and cast their vote for the People’s Choice Award before the DOE contest closes on September 15, 2023.

IDREAM EFRC researchers contributed the phrase “I Dream” in their native languages to represent the overall diversity of the team in its quest to unravel the complex chemistry of Hanford Site tank waste. Researchers submitted “selfie” videos to crowd-source a reading of the poem. In order: Robert G. Felsted (English), Roberto Colina-Ruiz (Spanish), Maxime Pouvreau (French), Sebastian Mergelsberg (German), Tingting Liu (Mandarin Chinese), Jaehun Chun (Korean), Gregory Schenter (Hebrew), Simantini Paul (Bengali), Elias Nakouzi (Arabic), Hanna Hlushko (Belarusian), Nancy Levinger (Swedish), Carolyn Pearce (English), and closing with the entire IDREAM team at its 2023 all-hands meeting. (Video by Eric Francavilla | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

A panel of judges chosen for their scientific and communications expertise will select overall winners, recognizing poems for their ability to communicate scientific expertise, style, scientific inspiration, originality, creativity, and overall presentation.

“Can a Scientist Dream it Alone?”

From weapons and power to waste and sludge,
I dream, Yo sueño
What triggers radioactive catastrophe?
Yo sueño, Je rêve
Waste, tangled mats of rocks and brine.
Je rêve, Ich träume
Rocks, chaotic clumps of crystals.
Ich träume, 我梦想
Crystals, perfect stacks of aluminum atoms.
我梦想, 꿈을 꾼다
Amidst constantly changing caustic, we find flawless beauty.
꿈을 꾼다, אני חולם
Who unravels such chemical complexity?
אני חולם, আমি স্বপ্ন দেখি
Can a scientist dream it alone?
আমি স্বপ্ন দেখি, أنا أحلم
Such knowledge takes us all.
أنا أحلم, Я мару
From arranged atoms to processed waste,
Я мару, Jag drömmar
Our stochastic minds coalesce,
Jag drömmar, IDREAM
To discover the yet unknown,
We dream.

The submission also called for an image, which PNNL graphic designer Nathan Johnson created using an electron micrograph of the aluminum crystals found in Hanford’s radioactive waste. He encircled the scientific image by the phrase “I dream” in the languages spoken by IDREAM researchers. The micrograph was collected for IDREAM research by Hanna Hlushko, a University of Notre Dame postdoctoral research associate.

Making science more accessible

IDREAM scientists were excited for the Poetry of Science Art Contest because of the opportunity to make science more accessible and engaging to the public. Through multiple sessions, they crafted a poem that emphasized the significance of the fundamental research for processing waste and the importance of having a team of scientists passionate about the issue.

Robert G. Felsted, the IDREAM early career network chair and a PNNL postdoctoral research associate, led several IDREAM poetry workshopping sessions open to the entire team, from grad students to members of the science advisory board.

“The beauty of the waste lies in the complex interplay of gibbsite crystals falling out of the liquid, growing or dissolving over time, and constantly changing states over and over in an ephemeral dance with the water around it,” Felsted said. “These crystals can cause serious challenges by blocking pipes that are needed to process the waste, but we are resolving these challenges by learning the dance of the crystals’ chemistry and shaping it with chemistry of our own to help solve challenges.”

Original electron microscope image of aluminum crystals in Hanford Site tank waste
The original electron microscope image (left) of aluminum crystals in Hanford Site tank waste was captured by University of Notre Dame postdoc Hanna Hlushko while conducting IDREAM research. To transform it into the image for the DOE Office of Science’s Basic Energy Sciences 2023 Poetry of Science Art Contest, PNNL graphic designer Nathan Johnson colorized the crystals pink and encircled them with the phrase "I dream" in multiple languages. (Composite image by Nathan Johnson | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Carolyn Pearce, IDREAM director and PNNL chemist, had the idea of incorporating the “I dream” sentiment behind the acronym in native languages spoken by members within the team.

An email chain was started in which team members were asked to send the phrase "I dream" in their native languages. 

“In Bengali (my mother tongue): I Dream = আমি স্বপ্ন দেখি,” said Simantini Paul, a University of Utah grad student in the IDREAM Early Career Network.

The languages woven through the poem and on the corresponding image are English, Spanish, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, Bengali, Arabic, Belarusian, and Swedish. The 125-word limit on the poem meant that not all of the IDREAM team’s languages could be included.

“It shows that science has no boundaries and unites people,” said Tingting Liu, postdoctoral research associate from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “That is the beauty of science.”

“Part of what makes Hanford tank waste so difficult to process is its heterogeneity—defined as having varied or dissimilar elements,” Pearce said. “So to solve the problem, we need a diverse, heterogeneous team of people working to generate new ideas together.

“These contests are about inspiring a science-curious but non-expert audience with the extraordinary science and people in EFRCs,” she said. “I hope that showcasing the importance of having many different voices will encourage others to bring their creativity and help solve the toughest scientific challenges.”


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.