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Making a world of difference in your backyard

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March 01, 1999 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. — At the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory science and technology is our business. Since its creation in 1965, the Laboratory's science and technology innovations have made a big difference in how other organizations and companies conduct their business, and they have had a positive impact on the lives of people all over the globe.

In the 1960s and 70s, we developed the critical design element for compact discs and disc players that now are manufactured and marketed worldwide. And we contributed to health breakthroughs that today allow medical personnel to view internal organs without operating, and measure mineral loss in bones.

In the 1980s, we conducted energy-use studies that are used today to help design more energy-efficient homes and businesses, and we developed technologies that can recycle waste into useful products, test protective clothing and protect the environment from hazardous chemical and nuclear wastes.

Today, our innovative staff are continuing to make breakthroughs in the areas of environment, energy, agriculture, national security and health. All of this work supports major initiatives within the Department of Energy, which is committed through its science and technology mission to delivering benefits never before realized in this country or around the world. Matching national initiatives with world class scientists, and providing an environment where quality science and technology development is accomplished in a cost-effective, safe environment is the winning formula. All this is happening right in your own backyard.


Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is one of America's premier environmental research organizations. Since 1965, Pacific Northwest has made significant contributions to the field of environmental science and technology, and today the Laboratory is applying its unique resources, facilities and expertise to solve some of the nation's most challenging environmental problems, such as global climate change, pollution prevention and cleanup.

Pacific Northwest is a national leader in global climate research, conducting more than $30 million in related work a year. Laboratory staff are called upon to provide technical guidance to Congress and team with other research organizations to help resolve scientific uncertainties about climate patterns. In fact, they lead DOE's largest climate change program, which looks at cloud formation and the radiative properties of clouds. Other Pacific Northwest staff are working to integrate the economic, social and natural science aspects of global change so that technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be developed and deployed.

Climate change is a worldwide issue but Pacific Northwest researchers are working to show its potential impact right here in the Northwest as well as around the globe. Our atmospheric and computer scientists have created a regional model for the Environmental Protection Agency that shows the Northwest will have significantly warmer and wetter winters in 80 years unless carbon dioxide emissions are greatly reduced. The model shows that under this scenario winter temperatures will increase by an average of three to five degrees, and summer temperatures will increase an average of two degrees by the year 2080. This warming will impact mountain snowpacks, which in turn will affect irrigation and farming, energy supplies, flooding patterns and winter resorts.

Pacific Northwest's success in the environmental science and technology arena has positioned it to play a major role in a new environmental research area - developing science-based standards for health agencies that set exposure standards. As costs of preventing and remediating contaminants increase, there is a pressing need for a more credible, scientific basis for environmental regulation and decision making. Currently, most models of exposure to environmental pollutants and their associated health effects are based on conservative and often outdated assumptions. We intend to help DOE and other regulators develop a more credible, scientific basis, which can guide environmental regulation. The Laboratory's existing strengths in environmental sciences give us a good start on this initiative.

At the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), DOE's newest national scientific user facility, scientists from all over the globe are working on the facility's state-of-the-art equipment to attain an understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes needed to solve critical environmental problems. Knowledge obtained at the EMSL will be used to develop technologies that can permanently and economically solve the most complex contamination and health problems. The laboratory has drawn international attention since it opened in October 1997.


After dabbling in agriculture research off and on for the last 25 years, the Laboratory recently made a commitment to focus its scientific and technological resources on emerging problems associated with agriculture and food production. Pacific Northwest has the expertise necessary to make significant contributions to issues such as agricultural productivity, the quality and safety of the world's food supply, resource management, and industry responsiveness to consumer needs.

The Laboratory is not new to applying its research to the agriculture industry. Since 1973, Pacific Northwest has worked on projects ranging from the development of biomass-derived chemicals to converting animal manure into fuel oil, and has examined processes improvement methods in areas ranging from irrigation to food irradiation.

But today, Pacific Northwest staff are looking at ways biotechnology can be used to grow healthier and more productive plants, and how satellites and information technology can be employed to help farmers more efficiently produce crops. Other projects include creating detection devices for deployment along the food production chain to detect foodborne organisms that cause sickness in humans, and improved processing, storage and distribution systems.

Health and Medicine

Based on decades studying the metabolism of radioactive materials and the health impacts of radiation exposure to the human body, Pacific Northwest's expertise is being tapped by medical centers across the country to aid in administering today's most promising radiation cancer therapies. Today, Laboratory researchers provide guidance to cancer specialists on how targeted radionuclides behave in the patient's body, enabling physicians to tailor treatments to be as safe and effective as possible.

Pacific Northwest scientists also are developing new chemistries for attaching medical isotopes to the specially-engineered antibodies that seek out and destroy cancer in the body. Researchers envision a day when physicians will be able to choose from a suite of available medical isotopes and protein carrier systems, each designed to address a specific kind of cancer.

Drawing upon the laboratory's vast materials research experience, Pacific Northwest recently launched the Biomaterials Science and Engineering Laboratory. Through BSEL, researchers are developing new materials for a variety of medical applications, from bioactive coatings for bone implants to vascular connectors that dissolve in the body. Innovations in the materials field will contribute significantly to advancements in cardiovascular medicine, orthopedics, ophthalmology and dentistry.


Pacific Northwest has created an alliance between the national laboratory, auto manufacturers, Northwest research universities, aluminum manufacturers, DOE and others to make significant contributions to the development of a durable, lightweight, energy-efficient vehicle for the 21st century. Working with our Northwest Alliance for Transportation Technology (NATT) partners, Pacific Northwest is developing lightweight materials, new processes for producing lightweight components, and new batteries and emission control devices that could be used to make the car or truck of the future more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly.

In other energy research, Pacific Northwest researchers are working to develop reliable, cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly power sources. For example, researchers are developing solid oxide fuel cells for industrial, large-scale use, as well as for smaller units like those found in automobiles and even backpack battery chargers. With fewer moving parts than conventional combustion engines or turbine systems, these highly efficient fuel cells can come on line quickly, emit vastly fewer harmful emissions to the environment, and are quiet. The fuel cells could be incorporated into large power generation stations as early as 2002.

In November, the last of six independent, nongovernmental organizations in Eastern Europe and China graduated to self-sufficiency in the fight against high energy consumption and environmental degradation in transition economies. These "energy efficiency centers" were created by Pacific Northwest to promote economic growth and energy efficiency in countries with high energy consumption and growing fossil fuel emissions. The centers provide expertise to business and government leaders regarding environmental policy development, energy management training, technology transfer, education and research.

The last center to become independent was in Ukraine, where it has been helping the World Bank evaluate how a $40 million loan can be used to install energy efficient technologies in public buildings in Kiev.

National Security

The Lab also is making significant contributions in the national security arena. One technology, ScenePro (formerly known as Team Leader) received national and international attention last year after Vice President Al Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno and other senior government officials watched a demonstration of the technology at a White House-sponsored crime-fighting event. Originally developed for United Nations inspectors in Iraq, ScenePro is currently being tested by police departments in Los Angeles, Baltimore and Miami. It is an interactive system that allows law enforcement personnel to quickly capture, store and relay vast amounts of information at crime scenes and other field scenarios.

Soon after India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices last year, the Laboratory received international attention for the development of two new devices designed to guard against the spread of nuclear weapons. The Automated Radioxenon Sampler/Analyzer (ARSA) and the Radionuclide Aerosol Sampler/Analyzer (RASA) detect nuclear detonations by analyzing the atmosphere for traces of radioactive materials. Both devices will be located around the globe and will be used to monitor the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, if ratified.

Late last year, DOE established the Pacific Northwest Center for Global Security to coordinate arms control, proliferation prevention and emergency response activities within the Laboratory. We also became a key player in the Department of Energy's Nuclear Cities Initiative, an effort aimed at diversifying the economies of Russia's nuclear cities and building a new commercial employment base for the scientists formerly involved in weapons production . The Laboratory's experience in diversifying the economy in the Mid-Columbia region and its widespread role in the former Soviet Union makes it ideal to help lead this effort.

Pacific Northwest continues to play a leading role in international nuclear safety by marshalling the resources of the DOE national laboratory system, U.S. commercial organizations, and governmental and scientific institutions in nine host countries. International Nuclear Safety Program (INSP) activities focus on reducing risks at 65 Soviet-designed nuclear power plants by transferring modern safety technology and helping to create self-sustaining infrastructures that ensure these countries are on a path toward internationally accepted safety standards. Worker and structural safety improvements last year at Chornobyl, in particular, are evidence of the United States' commitment to safeguarding the site of the 1986 accident.

Also in the national security field, Pacific Northwest assisted North Korea in placing spent nuclear reactor fuel under international safeguards, and supported Russia in preventing theft and diversion of excess nuclear weapons materials.


Although Pacific Northwest is a national laboratory working on problems of national and even international importance, nearly 20 percent of the Laboratory's budget is dedicated to Hanford activities. The Laboratory provides scientific expertise to a host of Hanford projects, and wherever possible solutions initially developed for use at Hanford are applied at other federal cleanup sites, as well as commercial and industrial locations, thus providing the most cost effective return possible for federal dollars invested in science.

One example of this is a groundwater cleanup technology that is being successfully developed and tested by Pacific Northwest at Hanford on underground plumes of chromate, a corrosion inhibitor used years ago in Hanford nuclear reactors. The technology, called In-Situ Redox Manipulation, cleans up contaminated groundwater more safely, easier, and less expensively than conventional methods. The process also is suitable for treating wastes associated with petroleum, chemical, and electronics production, and tests are being conducted at Army and Navy bases to treat groundwater contaminated with chlorinated hydrocarbons.

An emerging area of significance for Pacific Northwest at Hanford is its role in providing the scientific leadership and integration for the Site's vadose zone and groundwater modeling programs. Pacific Northwest is conducting an assessment of the existing data that addresses this problem, as well as the gaps in scientific information that will need to be collected to successfully resolve the issues associated with soil and groundwater contamination and cleanup.

The Laboratory also provides technical leadership to DOE's Tank Focus Area Program, which is responsible for development and integration of technical solutions to treat tank waste at four major DOE tank sites, including Hanford. The U.S. nuclear legacy tank waste problem is like no other problem in the nation, requiring scientific innovation, teamwork, and prioritization to successfully and cost-effectively address the challenges of treating tank waste. Technical scope for this national program includes waste retrieval, pretreatment and immobilization, tank closure, and characterization of both the waste and tank.

As a nation and a world, we've seen an enormous amount of science and technology advancement in the past few decades. But the next century will be no less dependant on science and technology innovation. That dependency holds many promising opportunities for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the Mid-Columbia communities that host this world-class institution.

Tags: Energy, Environment, Fundamental Science, National Security, EMSL, Operations, Energy Efficiency, Emissions, Fuel Cells, Batteries, Nuclear Power, Climate Science, Facilities

PNNL LogoPacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on signature capabilities in chemistry, earth sciences, and data analytics to advance scientific discovery and create solutions to the nation's toughest challenges in energy resiliency and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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