November 23, 2020
Director's Column

Skilled Crafts Workers Enable Science and Technology at PNNL

Originally Published in the Tri-City Herald on November 23, 2020

In addition to laboratory machinists, such as Perry McBreairty, who fabricate custom parts for use in labs, PNNL's skilled labor workforce includes millwrights, carpenters, sheet metal workers and electricians, along with a variety of other trades and specialties.

(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

As we prepare for Thanksgiving in a year like no other, we are especially thankful for the medical professionals, first responders and essential workers who have kept our communities going during the pandemic.

At the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), our essential workers include those who have kept us operating during the pandemic.

Among them are our custodial staff, who are employing new ways to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission on campus and disinfecting spaces should a staff member test positive.

PNNL's skilled craft workers also play a significant role in enabling our world-class science and technology. Their capabilities allow researchers to fabricate, test and refine unique experimental systems and component designs.

Alia Green
Alia Green, a welder journeyman, is among the 224 skilled craft workers at PNNL who are critical to enabling our world-class science and technology, as well as to supporting the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the national laboratory campus. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

For example, our welders and machinists team with researchers to develop and test an award-winning manufacturing method that melds and extrudes metal in a single step.

Using a first-of-its-kind machine, they demonstrate how Shear Assisted Processing and Extrusion, or ShAPE™, can reduce production costs and improve materials performance.

In one collaboration with industry, the team increased the conductivity of copper wire by 5 percent. This seemingly small gain in efficiency could result in electric vehicles that cost less and travel further on a single charge.

Researchers working on ShAPE™ projects involve the trades directly in their experiments.

Machinists make precise adjustments, like shaving thousandths of a centimeter (roughly the width of a human hair) from the tools to see if it improves the machine's output.

Craftspeople also weld new sensors to monitor the temperatures in the tooling, clean individual parts and make repairs after failed experiments.

Elsewhere, PNNL's crafts were essential to research investigating how COVID-19 is transmitted in office buildings.

This study involved releasing a benign particulate designed by our chemists to mimic the size, density and other properties of COVID-19.

Researchers tested how these particulates spread into offices through the HVAC system depending on filtration, airflow, the availability of fresh air and humidity.

A custom metal piece made by a PNNL machinist is just one example of the many ways skilled labor at PNNL support researchers with a broad array of science and technology activities. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

With only two weeks to prepare, our crafts colleagues reconfigured the airflow in a lab to simulate an office building setting. They installed duct work, sealed walls between offices, patched the chiller and even sprayed for spiders that could interfere with testing.

Their efforts allowed this fast-track project to begin without delay. The final report, expected in the coming months, could ultimately inform how to mitigate the transmission of the virus and protect workers.

In addition to their support of specific experiments, our craft workers install state-of-the-art research instruments.

Earlier this year, PNNL added three new powerful microscopes to its fleet. In close coordination with researchers and vendors, the craftspeople expedited work to provision the necessary power, water and gases to keep the assembly and installation on schedule, even with COVID-19 restrictions that limited how many people could be in the space at the same time.

Balance of Plant
PNNL plumber-steamfitters, laboratory machinists, sheet metal workers, electricians and a welder applied their expertise to build this combustor, steam generator and methane steam reforming reactor. Together, these components represent a fuel cell system's "balance of plant," which made it possible for researchers to conduct endurance tests of a commercial solid oxide fuel cell system. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Scientists now use these microscopes—some of the best in class—to zoom in to the sub-nanometer range to get information about a material's chemistry and structure. (For perspective, your fingernail grows one nanometer per second.)

They will use these tools for research in materials, biology and geology for a multitude of applications.

The trades at PNNL support our scientists and engineers in countless ways.

They also are critical to the day-to-day operation and maintenance of our campus. From clearing snow to groundskeeping, implementing COVID-19 sanitation protocols to maintaining lab equipment, we are grateful for their dedication to keeping our campus safe, clean and secure, especially during this particularly challenging year.

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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.

Published: November 23, 2020