Tucked away in Eastern Washington’s sagebrush country, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) can be overlooked with so much attention focused on the Puget Sound region’s tech hub.
But the U.S. Department of Energy facility recently snagged seven prestigious national awards for its innovations — the “Oscars of invention” — and has caught the eye of a few businesses and startups interested in taking the technology to market.
“People at the lab are so focused on the technical challenges, it’s not the financial reward that they’re looking for,” said Kannan Krishnaswami, a technology commercialization manager for PNNL. “They’re looking at the impact that the national lab can have on peoples’ lives.”
That includes a device that acts like a smoke alarm for active shooters; technology to more easily join lightweight materials with different melting points; a machine for detecting minuscule amounts of toxic chemicals, disease indicators and other chemicals; and a tool for precisely analyzing blood and different biological samples.
These are some of the innovations that recently won R&D 100 Awards from R&D Magazine, placing them among the top 100 scientific breakthroughs of the year.
“Because of the focus on research we’re able to take on much larger problems,” said Lee Cheatham, director of technology deployment and outreach at PNNL.
Opened in 1965, Richland-based PNNL is run by the private contractor Battelle and located near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced the plutonium used in the first nuclear bomb. It’s one of 17 national labs. Its funding comes primarily from the federal budget, as well as state dollars, foundations and the private sector. The lab provides educational outreach and researchers serve as expert sources for government leaders.
PNNL does a lot of work on security and cybersecurity, energy research including smart-grid technology and batteries, creating new materials for transportation and biology-related research.
But sometimes it’s a gut check that drives the science.
Sensors to hear gunshots
For many years, PNNL scientists worked on devices for the U.S. Department of Defense that monitored the condition of military weapons to make sure they would perform as expected. The sensors tracked the temperature and humidity that missiles were exposed to and detected accidents, like if someone dropped one, and relayed the information wirelessly.
Then came the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 that killed 20 small children and six staff in Connecticut.
“It triggered a visceral reaction,” Krishnaswami said. PNNL scientists wanted a solution that could make future assaults less deadly.
A team led by PNNL chief engineer Jim Skorpik took the device used to monitor missiles and reimagined it, creating the Acoustic Gunshot Detector. The technology is the size of a golf ball, runs on a battery and is so fine-tuned that it can distinguish the kind of gun being fired.
Two companies have licenses to commercialize the technology, and depending on how they use it, the device could be incorporated into a system that would immediately contact authorities and activate a lockdown.
“There are other technologies out there, maybe five companies offering solutions,” Krishnaswami said, “but all of their solutions are pretty expensive.”
The product containing the Acoustic Gunshot Detector could sell for about $100, he said, and is simple to install. A school, for example, could place dozens of the sensors around a campus.
Detecting cyberattacks on utilities
Cost and ease of installation were key considerations for the researchers working on other award-winning PNNL projects, as well.
SerialTap is an “inexpensive, elegant way” to detect cyberattacks on public water and electric utilities and transportation systems, said researcher Thomas Edgar. “It provides us a way to see what is happening and take action if something funny is going on, before a critical event happens.”
The device is small and can be plugged straight into systems built decades ago that lack modern-day means of sensing an attack.
It’s only been in recent years, Edgar said, that officials running public systems have become concerned about the threat. The 2015 cyberattack on the Ukrainian power grid helped highlight the need for protecting legacy systems. PNNL licensed the technology with a startup called Cynash to take the innovation to market.
“As researchers we often focus on the future, but there is always the existing world to think about. We can’t just transition to the new stuff,” Edgar said. With technology like SerialTap, “we can stop the bleeding now and make it better in the future also.”
Converting waste heat for reuse
Pete McGrail, a PNNL laboratory fellow, worked on another award-winning project that uses newly invented nanomaterials to turn wasted heat from motors into the cooling power used in refrigerators and AC systems.
“We can get rid of the electric-powered compressor and put in our heat-powered compressor and run the same cycle,” McGrail said. “We get rid of the middle man.”
The energy-saving technology, called MARCool, can be inserted into existing cooling systems, making it a more affordable upgrade.
The U.S. Navy wants to use it on supply ships that carry refrigerated foods to vessels that are deployed, sometimes in dangerous waters. The MARCool technology could save diesel fuel that currently powers their compressors, allowing ships to stay at sea longer. The technology is also being tested in a French fry producing facility in Eastern Washington, replacing less-efficient machinery that runs on electricity to freeze fries.
“I have a really strong desire in my career to see some of this work that we’ve been doing actually get out into the marketplace and have some impact on either national security, like the work we’re doing for the Navy, or everybody’s life,” said McGrail, “so we can really make a difference.”