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FEBRUARY 25, 2020
Web Feature

Forces of Attraction

Weak forces are strong enough to align semiconductor nanoparticles; new understanding may help make more useful materials

Creating better models to predict subsurface water flow and transport

river soil

New framework improves the predictions of subsurface sediment permeability

February 19, 2020
February 17, 2020

The Science
Co-authors of a paper in Water Resources Research led by PNNL researchers developed a new iterative data assimilation framework to more accurately describe the permeability of subsurface sediments in numerical models when using facies, a system that classifies dissimilar sediments into distinct geological units that share important features of interest to modelers. The iterative framework applies data from field observations and experiments to inform the delineation of facies at the start of each model run. Further refinements are achieved at each iteration through the application of statistical constraints that maintain geologic continuity among adjacent locations.

Distribution of Facies
Spatial distribution of three facies (red, yellow and blue colors) in a 2D vertical cross section of a 3D case. Figures show the new method provides a more accurate and continuous estimation of facies distribution compared to the conventional method. White colors in the figures are bore samples and black dots are the conditioning points selected by the new method.

The Impact
Spatial distribution of three facies (red, yellow and blue colors) in a 2D vertical cross section of a 3D case. Figures show the new method provides a more accurate and continuous estimation of facies distribution compared to the conventional method. White colors in the figures are bore samples and black dots are the conditioning points selected by the new method.

More realistic numerical representations of the permeability of subsurface sediments lead to improved predictions of groundwater flow and the concentration of constituents that are transported with the flow. The data assimilation framework can also be applied to estimate other subsurface properties from field measurements, or from data from other systems such as watersheds, as long as they can be categorized into a few discrete representative units.

Observational data on subsurface permeability is limited for most watersheds because of the impracticality of digging enough boreholes or wells to capture the heterogeneous nature of the subsurface environment. To solve for this limitation, researchers have widely adopted approaches that estimate permeability from field experiments such as a) measuring how water levels at a cluster of wells change when water is pumped at a nearby well, or b) monitoring how quickly a tracer released at one well reaches other wells in the aquifer. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford 300 Area Integrated Field Research Challenge site, for example, is well characterized from data assimilation methods that were used to understand the long-term persistence of nuclear fuel fabrication wastes disposal from 1943 to 1975.

The use of a facies approach to segment the subsurface reduces complexity in numerical models by grouping heterogeneous sediments into distinct homogenous units defined by hydraulic, physical and or chemical properties. A major difficulty with existing facies-based approaches in numerical models is that each facies is treated as its own, independent unit. Therefore, these models fail to capture the spatial continuity of subsurface sediments. The authors of this paper developed a framework that maintains continuity between neighboring facies in numerical models and thus better reflects true subsurface geology, and thereby groundwater movement. The improvements come from an iterative data assimilation approach that incorporates direct and indirect data about subsurface permeability gathered from field observations and experiments at the start of each model run as well as the application of statistical constraints about subsurface geology. The data assimilation and statistical constraint steps are re-imposed for each iteration, leading to refined facies delineation. This framework reduces uncertainty about the spatial distribution of sediment types in the subsurface, which results in more accurate predictions of groundwater flow and constituent transport.

The authors evaluated the performance of the new framework on a two-dimensional, two-facies model and a three-dimensional, three-facies model of DOE’s well-characterized Hanford 300 Area that were conceptualized from borehole and field tracer experiments. The results of the research shows that the framework can identify facies spatial patterns and reproduce tracer breakthrough curves with much improved accuracy over facies-based approaches that lack spatial continuity constraints. With additional data, the authors say that the framework can also be used to categorize biogeochemical reactive units in an aquifer.

Xingyuan Chen, Earth Scientist,

Funding for this research came from DOE Office of Science BER, PNNL Subsurface Biogeochemical Research SFA.

Song, X., Chen, X., Ye, M., Dai, Z., Hammond, G., And Zachara, J.M. (2019). Delineating facies spatial distribution by integrating ensemble data assimilation and Indicator Geostatistics with level-set transformation. Water Resources Research, 55.

March 9, 2019
JANUARY 21, 2020
Web Feature

Forensic Proteomics: Beyond DNA Profiling

A new book by PNNL biochemist Erick Merkley details forensic proteomics, a technique that directly analyzes proteins in unknown samples, in pursuit of making proteomics a widespread forensic method when DNA is missing or ambiguous.
NOVEMBER 26, 2019
Web Feature

Conquering Peak Power

PNNL’s Intelligent Load Control technology manages and adjusts electricity use in buildings when there’s peak demand on the power grid.

PNNL Launches Marine Renewable Energy Database

Logo of Tethys Engineering

PNNL created an online database to share information related to the marine renewable energy industry.

Tethys Engineering addresses industry’s technical and engineering challenges

November 18, 2019
November 18, 2019

Marine renewable energy (MRE) has the potential to provide 90 gigawatts of power in the United States through waves and tidal and ocean currents.

To harness the ocean’s energy, the MRE industry needs to understand how to address technical and engineering challenges such as efficient power takeoff, device survivability, and grid integration.

PNNL developed Tethys Engineering in September 2019 to allow sharing resources around the deployment of devices in corrosive, high-energy marine environments. The recently launched Tethys Engineering online database includes collected and curated documents surrounding the technical and engineering development of MRE devices. Users can search and filter results to intuitively identify information relevant to developers, researchers, and regulators.

Tethys Engineering includes more than 3,000 journal articles, conference papers, reports, and presentations related to wave, current, salinity gradient, and ocean thermal energy conversion technologies. The database contains information from around the world.

The Tethys Engineering database was created as a companion to the already established Tethys website, which focuses on the environmental effects of the MRE industry.

November 18, 2019
NOVEMBER 13, 2019
Web Feature

Let There Be (Acceptable) Light

Advancements such as LEDs have changed consumers’ experience with lighting. Whereas there was once a simple choice of how much light a consumer desired, there’s now a variety of choices to be made about the appearance of light.
NOVEMBER 5, 2019
Web Feature

Magnesium Takes ShAPE™

Two forms of magnesium material were processed into tubing using PNNL’s Shear Assisted Processing and Extrusion™ technology. Both materials were found to have quite similar and improved properties—even though they began vastly different.

Understanding the Grid Value Proposition of Marine Energy: A Literature Review

July 1, 2019
November 1, 2019


In 2018, the US Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office Marine Hydrokinetics Program directed two national laboratories, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to investigate the potential of marine renewable resources to contribute the U.S. electric system. Due to the innovative nature of marine renewable energy and the transformation of the US electric system resource mix, there is a lack of insight about the future potential role and grid value proposition of marine energy.

An initial step in this technical project is to review available literature to inform and help characterize the portfolio of potential marine energy resource contributions. This literature review summarizes the energy fundamentals of marine resources; the performance and operational characteristics of energy conversion devices; grid opportunities and integration challenges most applicable to marine energy; storage coupling to achieve grid opportunities; and offshore wind energy competition and collaboration. It provides the context and the state of knowledge in which the grid value proposition of marine energy should be further researched and explored.

Notable findings from the review include the following:

  • Very little work has been conducted to connect the grid and fundamental marine energy development. Few technical papers attempt to demonstrate grid value from marine energy or, conversely, illustrate how grid applications may have an effect on device size and scale, convergence of device types, and location of marine energy technologies. Those that have done so relied on numerous estimations and assumptions and target very specific potential benefits.
  • Aggregation of tidal generation for baseload—the concept of distributing tidal generators to accomplish complementary phase shifts in generation that, when summed, would provide relatively stable power—faces challenges from a cost perspective. One study evaluated three geographically separate, complementary locations off the Scottish coast. The study concluded that aggregate power generated from sites with varying resources is sensitive to the characteristics of the individual sites and some irregularity should be expected in aggregate power output due to natural variation in successive tides. Ultimately, the study suggests that using complementary sites and limiting the capacity of the turbines, particularly during neap tides, could create baseload power, or a constant power output; but the research team expressed concerns regarding whether such a deployment would be cost effective. Decreasing the turbines’ rated capacity and therefore not capturing the resource to its fullest extent would cause economic losses.
  • Tidal energy-generating profiles may be well matched for storage. Energy storage is a fast-growing resource in the energy industry. It can provide value in a multitude of grid situations, including supporting marine energy technologies. One report suggests that because tides are predictable, tidal technologies are ideal for pairing with energy storage to create a steady output of power. In fact, Nova Innovation recently integrated a Tesla battery storage system with the Shetland Tidal Array in Scotland and expanded the generating capacity and enabled dispatchability at the site.
  • There is a potential match between resource peak and electric demand. When considering a seasonally peaking resource, like wave energy, there is an opportunity for the generation patterns to be well matched with energy demand. For example, one study noted that British Columbia’s energy consumption peaks in the winter when the available wave resource is also at its strongest; this same characteristic is true along the rest of North America’s Pacific Northwest coast.
  • Co-location may deliver grid benefits. A study evaluating a portion of the North Sea showed that there could be significant benefits to co-locating wave devices and offshore wind turbines. When wind and waves are negatively correlated, this decreases variability and can help mitigate grid integration concerns that are sometimes associated with variable generation. Being proactive in the siting process and performing quantitative spatial planning can avoid potential conflicts between sea uses, while harnessing the most useful energy.
  • The availability and cost of land was used in utility decision-making for resource selection and resulted in a portfolio selection that included marine energy development. In a 2017 Integrated Resource Plan for the Caribbean Utilities Company (the public electric utility for Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands), a contractor evaluated land use associated with different generation technologies and found a significant advantage to using marine energy, specifically ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). Accordingly, and despite a higher capital cost for OTEC relative to other resource options, the resource plan containing OTEC was among the two recommended portfolios. In the portfolio, OTEC resources replaced onshore solar development, which requires a relatively high land commitment proportional to total generation, as well as natural gas-fired backup generation and battery storage. Although OTEC is not considered in this report, connections can be drawn to the technology, and research from that field is applicable to other marine energy resources in particular instances.

As the marine energy industry grows, there is a corresponding increase in the body of literature about both the potential value of harnessing marine resources as well as the requisite technical work to integrate the resource into the grid. Due to the unique aspects of marine energy resources, especially their offshore location, volume, and predictability, there are many reasons to consider marine energy a viable potential renewable resource in the future electric system.

July 1, 2019