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Top 10 Things You Didn't Know About Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

February 24, 2014 - 2:00pm

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A new process developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory turns algae into crude oil in less than an hour -- a process that takes millions of years in nature. | Video courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

This article is part of the Energy.gov series highlighting the “Top Things You Didn’t Know About…” Be sure to check back for more entries soon.

From chemical science to global climate change and beyond, the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) is leading the way in cutting-edge science that is changing the way Americans live and work. Located in Richland, Washington, PNNL is a multidisciplinary lab with expertise in science, energy, the environment and national security. Created in 1965, PNNL has since grown to a staff of 4,300 scientists and researchers who conduct research in support of the Energy Department, other government agencies, academia and the private sector -- ensuring U.S. leadership in scientific and technical innovation.

10. PNNL engineers came up with a new way to turn algae into crude oil in less than an hour. The process uses pressure and temperature to speed up what nature takes millions of years to do. With additional refining, the crude algae oil can be converted into a variety of biofuels. Utah-based Genifuel Corp. licensed the technology for commercial use.

9. PNNL developed a new class of materials, called “molecular sponges,” that recover metals such as mercury from water, soil and air more effectively, safely and inexpensively than previous methods. When used at sites like water treatment plants or industrial waste plants, these materials absorb large quantities of metals without generating hazardous waste.

8. PNNL is home to the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a national scientific user facility available to scientists and researchers from federal agencies, academia and the private sector. EMSL users make scientific advances in biosystems design, terrestrial and subsurface ecosystems, energy materials and processes, and atmospheric aerosol research. EMSL has served scientific users representing all 50 states and nearly 30 countries since it opened in 1997. Watch a virtual tour of EMSL.

7. An appliance-control device developed at PNNL senses grid stress and responds instantly by temporarily turning off certain machines, thereby reducing end-use demand and balancing the system so the power stays on. Managing the energy use of household appliances -- especially at peak times -- could slash energy demand and avoid blackouts.

6. PNNL’s insights into how catalysts behave paved the way for Cummins, Inc. to introduce a new, “lean-burn” diesel engine, which Dodge incorporated into its 2007 Ram truck. The engine met emissions standards and improved fuel efficiency by 25 percent over conventional engines.

5. PNNL developed the millimeter wave holographic scanning technology found in more than 1,000 scanning systems at airports and other checkpoints around the world. Without showing human features, these systems quickly, accurately, and safely scan people for hidden metal and non-metal weapons, explosives, and other security threats. The same technology has been licensed for use in the apparel industry.

4. PNNL developed a chemical catalyst process to produce propylene glycol from renewable sources. Propylene glycol, which is widely used in everyday products, including liquid detergents, hand sanitizers, cosmetics and antifreeze, relies on imported oil for its production. In 2011, ADM began operating a manufacturing plant in Illinois based on this PNNL technology. The plant is designed to produce up to 25 percent of the propylene glycol needed in the United States every year from renewable sources. This technology won an R&D 100 award for one of the best technologies of the year worldwide and a national award for one of the best transfers from a National Laboratory to industry.

3. PNNL scientists developed a targeted cancer treatment to treat pancreatic and prostate cancer as well as brain, neck and kidney tumors. The process uses cesium-137 and yttrium-90 extracted from nuclear waste. Now used in cancer drug products worldwide, the treatment is delivered as a polymer gel, or with microseeds, injected directly into the solid tumor to kill cancer cells.

2. In the 1970s, PNNL pioneered the CD and DVD technology that revolutionized data storage and the digital recording of music and video. This system allows information to be stored and retrieved as a series of dots about one micron in diameter.

1. In 1969, PNNL was the only Northwest organization chosen by NASA to analyze lunar material collected from the first Apollo mission to the moon. The research helped determine the origin and history of the moon by measuring the radioactivity of its surface materials.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly listed the number of airport scanning systems as 50,000. It has been corrected to say "more than 1,000 scanning systems."

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