The Physical Sciences Division (PSD) stewards a broad research portfolio encompassing basic and applied chemistry, catalysis, materials science, geosciences, and chemical physics. Our research strives to refine our molecular-level understanding of complex, multiphase systems, and phenomena. We discover and apply new knowledge to address major national priorities and needs in energy sustainability and decarbonization through the development of new energy storage technologies and the creation of high-value fuels and materials from abundant wastes. A major new facility opening in the fall of 2021 at PNNL, the Energy Sciences Center, will be an important resource where PSD’s fundamental scientists and applied researchers will meet and collaborate to accelerate advances in energy technology, facilitating a more rapid transition to energy sustainability.
PSD scientists work in close partnership with sponsors in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Science program, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, Bioenergy Technologies Office, and the Vehicle Technologies Office, to advance the U.S. Department of Energy's mission priorities. The division is organized into five research groups:
Catalysis is a particular strength of PNNL, where researchers are taking advantage of the Laboratory's historical emphasis on chemistry and chemical engineering. The Institute for Integrated Catalysis explores and develops the chemistry and technology of catalyzed processes that are key to securing energy independence and transitioning towards solely using recycled and renewable carbon and other renewable energy resources. Our catalysis programs range from fundamental science to process development, with ongoing concentrations in catalysis synthesis, characterization, and theory and simulation.
Basic and Applied Molecular Foundations
The Basic and Applied Molecular Foundations group serves as a bridge between fundamental sciences and applied technology programs as represented by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Offices of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Fossil Energy. Our goal is to tie the latest capabilities and advances in our understanding of fundamental processes to Basic Energy Sciences programs in catalysis and separations, and ultimately integrate them with applied research to drive innovation.
Chemical Physics and Analysis
The Chemical Physics and Analysis group seeks to understand the underlying chemical physics of complex processes relevant to energy production and use, environmental remediation, waste management, and national security. Our approach is to develop advanced experimental and theoretical tools to make highly quantitative measurements of the molecular-level processes that lend themselves to rigorous and accurate theoretical modeling and simulation. The goal is to provide predictive models that lead to a mechanistic understanding of complex processes.
The Materials Sciences group aims to develop predictive understanding and establish control of synthesis pathways of materials relevant to energy capture, conversion, and storage, as well as materials systems pertinent to quantum information technologies. Our approach combines a broad range of synthesis techniques, in situ and ex situ microscopic and spectroscopic characterization, tomography, computational modeling, and data analytics. This research provides insight into complex relationships between materials building blocks, synthesis conditions, and the resulting structure, properties, and functions, and underpins the development of novel energy, computing, and communications technologies.
The Geochemistry group endeavors to understand the reactions at complex mineral and fluid interfaces in geochemical and environmental systems at the Earth’s near-surface domain. Our approaches span molecular to mesoscale regimes, often by integrating laboratory-based experiments, multi-modal characterization, and theory and computational simulation. Impacts from new knowledge about key reaction mechanisms and rates include improved models for predicting water quality and sustainability, safe and efficient energy and mineral resource extraction, nutrient availability, contaminant fate and transport, and storage of carbon and energy wastes in the subsurface.
With quantum chemistry, researchers led by PNNL computational scientist Simone Raugei are discovering how enzymes such as nitrogenase serve as natural catalysts that efficiently break apart molecular bonds to control energy and matter.
As he prepares to enter PNNL's Energy Sciences Center later this year, Vijayakumar 'Vijay' Murugesan is among DOE leaders exploring solutions to design and build transformative materials for batteries of the future.