PNNL’s 8 key science and technology highlights in 2019

Steve Ashby
Courtesy Andrea Starr, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Selecting 2019’s highlights for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is a bit like choosing just one family photo for the holiday card among the dozens of important events and exciting adventures of the year.

These eight exemplify how researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy lab are advancing scientific discovery and finding solutions to the nation’s toughest problems in energy resiliency and national security.

In the area of scientific discovery, PNNL scientists worked to enhance knowledge and expand understanding of the environment, materials and human health.

Modeling ecological health

Researchers used a new ocean modeling tool to shed light on how the ecology of the Northwest’s Salish Sea might respond to increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and growing nutrient loads.

After successfully predicting the biogeochemical cycles of the Salish Sea, researchers applied the model to answer questions about how this body of water will change as the climate changes.

Developing designer proteins

Inspired by the way proteins can mimic the molecular pattern of ice, PNNL researchers and collaborators engineered new proteins and controlled the way they interact with the surface of mica, assembling designer filaments and honeycomb lattices that may lead to new materials for solar cells and electronic circuits.

Understanding the human brain

Two different studies took a closer look at the brain and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

The first revealed the structure of a fundamental electrical switch in the brain and showed how it fails in diseased brains.

The second used sensitive mass spectrometers to examine a specific protein that may play a role in Alzheimer’s and similar diseases.

Our efforts to enhance the nation’s energy resiliency are focused on providing the nation with secure and affordable energy.

Informing infrastructure restoration

Researchers at PNNL developed analytical tools that use satellite-based imagery to quickly assess damage to energy infrastructure.

These tools have been used in more than a dozen natural disasters in the United States in the past two years, including five hurricanes, an earthquake and this spring’s upper Midwest flooding.

Shaping the grid of the future

Along with industry partner National Grid, PNNL developed a sophisticated model of the electricity distribution system on Nantucket Island to guide investments in energy storage.

This study will be used to build a more reliable and flexible electricity system for the island and its population, which swells five-fold during the summer season.

Building better batteries

PNNL scientists concocted a chemical cocktail that yielded an improved electrolyte for use in lithium-ion batteries.

These better batteries will enable electric cars, cell phones and other devices to keep a charge and operate efficiently in extreme temperatures, from minus-40 degrees to greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

PNNL’s national security team delivered technologies to detect threats and keep information and people safe.

Detecting malware

PNNL cyber sleuths have borrowed a page from biology to develop a tool that can identify inherited malware in software.

The tool converts software code into DNA-like structures and then examines it for suspicious similarities to known malware, allowing them to pinpoint evolving threats.

Sensing harmful substances

Our scientists and engineers invented technologies that “sniff” out vapors from illicit drugs, explosives and chemicals associated with the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons.

They can detect and identify trace amounts in the air without swiping a physical sample, which is useful in several settings. One invention was licensed to a company to rapidly detect toxic industrial chemicals in the field.

Like any year-end wrap-up, this list is incomplete.

But I hope it gives you a sense of what some of your friends and neighbors at PNNL worked on in the last year and the great things you can expect of us in 2020 and beyond.

Steven Ashby is the director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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