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When a pinch is problematic: Detecting pertechnetate in groundwater


A PNNL researcher holds a redox sensor in the project’s lab in the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory.  Andrea Starr | PNNL

PNNL develops an effective tool for measuring a tricky contaminant

March 30, 2020
March 30, 2020

Imagine trying to detect and measure a pinch of salt in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Now pretend the tools you are using don’t work well. Some can detect the salt but can’t tell you how much is in there, and others confuse salt with chlorine.

Now swap the swimming pool for a source of groundwater and the salt for a radioactive contaminant called pertechnetate.

ACS Journal Pertechnetate
The future of groundwater contamination measurement? The large thiol claws of PNNL’s subsurface probe with custom gold tips detect and measure pertechnetate in aqueous environments. Cover illustration by Rose Perry, PNNL

Pertechnetate is a byproduct of nuclear waste. If it ends up where it is not supposed to be—like, in groundwater—it could impact human health, which is why researchers and regulators keep a close lookout for it. The environmental safety limits for pertechnetate are roughly equivalent to a pinch of salt in an Olympic pool. And there are only a few technologies to measure it, each with limitations.

PNNL research tackles this challenge with new technology to detect and accurately measure pertechnetate at super low levels in groundwater. This research, “Redox-Based Electrochemical Affinity Sensor for Detection of Aqueous Pertechnetate Anion,” was the cover article for the March 2020 edition of ACS Sensors (DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.9b01531). 

Why it matters: The Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard for pertechnetate is 0.000000052 grams per liter (that’s roughly 1/6000th the weight of a single poppy seed). While techniques exist for detection of pertechnetate in the environment, many have their drawbacks. PNNL’s technology can accurately measure low levels of pertechnetate in groundwater. Additionally, this proof of concept has the potential to be applied to other target contaminants simultaneously, increasing efficiency for environmental sensing.

Summary: The new technology acts like a coin counter, but at a microscopic level. It sorts one type of chemical from another, providing the total amount of a target chemical at the end. The tool uses custom probes with a gold electrode that only allows the target groundwater contaminants to stick while the other chemicals bounce off.

Sulfur likes to bind to gold and it also tends to react with pertechnetate, making sulfur-containing compounds an ideal intermediate in tool development. The sulfur sticks to the gold probe, then reacts with the pertechnetate, which forms a precipitate. The precipitate inhibits an electric current pulsing through the probe, providing an inverse measurement of pertechnetate concentration.

What’s Next: While this work was specifically focused on pertechnetate, there is potential to expand the technology to simultaneous multiple targets with the goal of increasing the efficiency of environmental measurements.

Sponsors: This research was funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program at PNNL and by the Deep Vadose Zone program under the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Environmental Management. Part of this research was performed at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a national user facility at PNNL managed by the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

PNNL Research Team: Sayandev Chatterjee, Meghan S. Fujimoto, Yingge Du, Gabriel B. Hall, Nabajit Lahiri, Eric D. Walter, Libor Kovarik. ACS Sensors cover illustration by Rose Perry, PNNL.


March 27, 2020
MARCH 16, 2020
Web Feature

Carving Out Quantum Space

The race toward the first practical quantum computer is in full stride. Scientists at PNNL are bridging the gap between today’s fastest computers and tomorrow’s even faster quantum computers.
MARCH 12, 2020
Web Feature

Tracking Toxics in the Salish Sea

With the help of a diagnostic tool called the Salish Sea Model, researchers found that toxic contaminant hotspots in the Puget Sound are tied to localized lack of water circulation and cumulative effects from multiple sources.
JANUARY 10, 2020
Web Feature

Clark Recognized for Nuclear Chemistry Research

The world’s largest scientific society honored Sue B. Clark, a PNNL and WSU chemist, for contributions toward resolving our legacy of radioactive waste, advancing nuclear safeguards, and developing landmark nuclear research capabilities.

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
OCTOBER 31, 2019
Web Feature

The World’s Energy Storage Powerhouse

Pumped-storage hydropower offers the most cost-effective storage option for shifting large volumes of energy. A PNNL-led team wrote a report comparing cost and performance factors for 10 storage technologies.

Top Ten Blendstocks for Turbocharged Gasoline Engines

Cover of Co-Optima Report

Bio-blendstocks with the potential to deliver the highest engine efficiency

October 8, 2019
October 8, 2019

More efficient engines enabled by better fuels could increase the fuel economy of light duty (LD) vehicles by 10 percent beyond current technology and planned developments. This report identifies top blendstocks that can be derived from biomass and are suitable for further development and commercialization. These blendstocks are best-suited for LD gasoline, boosted spark ignition (BSI) engines. The blendstocks were identified using a fuel property basis using the BSI merit function. The merit function determines potential improvements in engine efficiency, was used to evaluate the performance of candidate bioblendstocks in blends up to 30%. Those that exceeded the efficiency of an E10 premium were included in this list. This report is aimed at biofuel researchers looking to better understand the efficiency implications of biofuels under development, as well as engine researchers who are interested in future biofuels with properties that enable more efficient engine design and operation.

The Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines (Co-Optima) team includes experts from nine national laboratories: Argonne, Idaho, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The team’s expertise includes biofuel development, fuel property testing and characterization, combustion fundamentals, modeling and simulation from atomic scale to engine scale, and analysis.

Gaspar, Daniel J., West, Brian H., Ruddy, Danial, Wilke, Trenton J., Polikarpov, Evgueni, Alleman, Teresa L., George, Anthe, Monroe, Eric, Davis, Ryan W., Vardon, Derek, Sutton, Andrew D., Moore, Cameron M., Benavides, Pahola T., Dunn, Jennifer, Biddy, Mary J., Jones, Susanne B., Kass, Michael D., Pihl, Josh A., Pihl, Josh A., Debusk, Melanie M., Sjoberg, Magnus, Szybist, Jim, Sluder, C S., Fioroni, Gina, and Pitz, William J. Top Ten Blendstocks Derived From Biomass For Turbocharged Spark Ignition Engines: Bio-blendstocks With Potential for Highest Engine Efficiency. United States: N. p., 2019. Web. doi:10.2172/1567705.

Data Assimilation Impact of In Situ and Remote Sensing Meteorological Observations on Wind Power Forecasts during the First Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP)

July 1, 2019
September 26, 2019
Journal Article

During the first Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP) new meteorological observations were collected from a large suite of instruments, including wind velocities measured on networks of tall towers provided by wind industry partners, wind speeds measured by cup anemometers mounted on the nacelles of wind turbines, and by networks of Doppler sodars and radar wind profilers. Previous data denial studies found a significant improvement of up to 6% RMSE reduction for short-term wind power forecasts due to the assimilation of all of these observations into the NOAA Rapid Refresh (RAP) forecast model using a 3dvar GSI data assimilation scheme. As a follow-on study, we now investigate the impacts of assimilating into the RAP model either the additional remote sensing observations (sodars and wind profiling radars) alone, or assimilating the industry provided in situ observations (tall towers and nacelle anemometers) alone, in addition to the standard meteorological data sets that are routinely available. The more numerous tall tower/nacelle observations provide a relatively large improvement through the first 3-4 hours of the forecasts, which however decays to a negligible impact by forecast hour 6. In comparison the less numerous vertical profiling sodars/radars provide an initially smaller impact that decays at a much slower rate, with a positive impact present through the first 12 hours of the forecast. Large positive assimilation impacts for both sets of instruments are found during daytime hours, while small or even negative impacts are found during nighttime hours.

Wilczak J.M., J. Olson, I. Djalaova, L. Bianco, L.K. Berg, W.J. Shaw, and R.L. Coulter, et al. 2019. "Data Assimilation Impact of In Situ and Remote Sensing Meteorological Observations on Wind Power Forecasts during the First Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP)." Wind Energy 22, no. 7:932-944. PNNL-SA-132499. doi:10.1002/we.2332