December 22, 2020
Director's Column

PNNL Developed Science and Technology Advances During a Challenging 2020

Originally Published in the Tri-City Herald on December 21, 2020

Materials scientist Lili Shi conducts battery testing as part of PNNL's efforts to advance safe, reliable and affordable energy storage technologies for transportation applications and to help integrate renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, into the power grid.

(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

This year has been difficult for all of us, but despite the challenges, the talented and dedicated staff at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) kept delivering for you and the nation.

Their countless contributions help advance scientific discovery, improve energy resiliency and enhance national security.

Since picking just a few to feature was difficult, I have chosen to highlight the breadth and impact of PNNL's research and development in 2020.

Fighting COVID-19

As part of the fight against COVID-19, PNNL mechanical engineer Michelle Fenn helped design custom single-use ventilator ports using additive manufacturing techniques. (Photo courtesy of Eric Francavilla and Graham Bourque, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

PNNL researchers have been applying their expertise to understand, predict, prevent and treat COVID-19 since its emergence. In one project, they are using a cough simulator to understand how the virus moves through the air.

In another, they are exploring the chemical structures of viral and human proteins to identify and screen promising drug treatments.

Other studies focus on next-generation testing and developing nano-sensors to speed detection. Our researchers even developed prototype designs for 3D-printed personal protection equipment to address supply shortages.

Understanding the planet

PNNL is a recognized leader in Earth science, including climate change and its impacts. Researchers developed sophisticated modeling tools to learn how the dust blowing onto the Himalayas from thousands of miles away contributes to the timing and rate of snowmelt.

Understanding the connection between climate, dust and snowmelt is important because the ice and snow of the Himalayas provides drinking water for millions.

Closer to home, scientists used machine learning to identify the underlying conditions that trigger wildfires in the western United States. Their research will help project the future risk of wildfires under various climate scenarios.

Improving energy storage

A team from PNNL and Washington State University are advancing sodium-ion batteries, which are a potentially cheaper and more sustainable alternative to today's lithium-ion batteries.

The scientists created a cathode and liquid electrolyte that, when used together, significantly improved the amount of energy the battery could hold and how successfully it could recharge.

The Grid Storage Launchpad, a new facility DOE plans to construct at PNNL, will further enable future energy storage research.

Investigating Hanford contaminants

PNNL researchers developed a method to conduct the first atom-by-atom studies of the structure of plutonium microcrystals found in contaminated soil samples from a disposal site being cleaned up at Hanford.

Their work to explore crystals 50 times smaller than a grain of salt could help reveal information about environmental implications, as well as the material's nuclear processing origins, which could have applications in support of nuclear nonproliferation.

Advancing computing

The promise of quantum computing's tantalizing speeds drives the challenging pursuit of building and operating this entirely new kind of computer.

PNNL researchers and collaborators discovered that low-level radiation from natural sources in the environment could degrade the performance of quantum components called qubits and suggested ways to overcome it that could inform future design and construction.

In another area of computational science, researchers developed and applied novel machine learning techniques for power grid operations, cybersecurity and image analysis for national security.

Furthering fundamental science

Simone Raugei, a computational scientist at PNNL, is leading research that will improve the understanding of how to predict and control chemical reactions that could be applied to developing catalysts for energy conversion and fuel production. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Starr, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

PNNL scientists continued to push the boundaries of basic science in 2020. Just two of many examples: they captured first-ever measurements that explain water's bizarre behavior at extremely cold temperatures found in outer space.

And they helped reveal how enzymes control chemical reactions, learning lessons from nature that could improve how to predict and control reactions in synthetic catalysts being designed for numerous applications.

Our scientists will be even better equipped to advance the frontiers of science when the $90M Energy Sciences Center opens in late 2021.

Looking back over this most unusual and challenging year, I am incredibly proud of how our staff worked hard to stay safe and productive.

Every one of our 5,000 employees played a part in delivering outcomes like these, helping transform the world and enable a safer, cleaner and more prosperous future.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. To read previous Director's Columns, visit and filter by Director's Columns in our Latest Stories.