PNNL's Aquatic Research Laboratory gets $4.9M upgrade

Outdoor tanks now indoors, river water now can be treated

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldDecember 6, 2012 

Six months after sturgeon hatched at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the creatures are swimming around an indoor tank, thanks to a major upgrade of PNNL's Aquatic Research Laboratory.

The $4.9 million project remodeled 40-year-old laboratory space that was "a dark, dingy, dank, water-leaking place," said Julie Erickson, deputy manager of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest Site Office.

But it also enclosed the lab's outdoor fish tanks in a 5,500-square-foot indoor space for a total of 7,400 square feet of space.

The improved laboratory will allow scientists to do new research because it has better control of variables such as water quality and temperature, and it will hold more fish and different kinds of fish, said David Geist, technical group manager.

The lab develops the science that helps leaders make critical decisions, said Mike Kluse, PNNL director. Its focus includes research to improve hydropower dams, make decisions about the cleanup of Hanford and other waste sites, and assess climate impacts, he said.

Now the aquatic research lab conducts $15 million of research annually, much of it focused on better ways to operate dams used for hydropower.

Researchers can draw on PNNL's wide range of expertise in engineering, biology and computational mathematics to develop ways to operate dams safely for salmon but in ways that keep electrical costs down for utility customers, Geist said.

Among the fish swimming around the new indoor tanks are the juvenile sturgeon, just a few inches long now but looking much like the 10-foot-long, bony-plated adults they could become. In another tank are rainbow trout, weighing at least a pound and a half each. Brightly colored tropical fish are kept for international work.

"Fish are happier," Geist said, summing up the improvements to the lab that began three years ago.

The remodeled lab near the banks of the Columbia River in Hanford's 300 Area can use river water now that the lab has a water treatment system. It filters the water, treats it to remove disease-causing pathogens and then heats or cool it to the desired temperature.

Outdoor tanks used to get too hot for fish during summer months and cooling the water was expensive. Not only will an energy-efficient heat pump reduce costs, but water also will be recycled to reduce use by up to 50 percent.

Researchers likely will be happier, too.

In the past, they worked outside during winter storms and summer heat, fixed freezing water pipes and retrieved tank lids the wind would blow off.

Among research conducted by the aquatics lab is work with the juvenile lamprey shocking system it developed.

The device delivers a mild shock in areas where the fin-less, eel-like fish may be burrowed beneath river sediment. The shock brings them up from the sediment, where a camera on the device is used to record the fish and a laser system helps determine their length to estimate their age. Sensors can provide information on dissolved oxygen, pH and the river flow.

Juvenile lamprey may be reared in sediment for up to seven years, and the adults will seek out small areas to spawn, where as many as several thousand juveniles live. The fish are federal species of concern, and their numbers have significantly declined in the past decade.

But not much is known about what habitat lamprey prefer, said research scientist Bob Mueller. By learning more with minimal disruption to the fish, destruction or contamination of their preferred habitat might be prevented, Mueller said.

In another project, researchers are studying the sudden water pressure changes that can harm fish as they go through dams. Sudden changes can cause their swim bladders, which regulate buoyancy, to suddenly expand or burst, harming the fish. The aquatics laboratory includes computerized equipment that can simulate pressure changes in tanks of water.

"We test fish to relate pressure to injuries so when we build new turbines, they will not see injuries or mortality as fish go through," said Richard Brown, senior research scientist.

Not only will information be useful in the Mid-Columbia, but the technology also can be exported to help allow the use of clean energy elsewhere in the world, he said.

"Clearly, great things are expected from the aquatic research center and the staff here," Erickson said before a ribbon was cut to open the remodeled laboratory.

The lab improvements, paid for by DOE's Institutional General Plant Project fund, also include a space for fish surgeries and a new room with precise instruments for detailed analysis of sensitive samples.

"These recent enhancements will make the facility an even more valued resource and contributor of science and technology for the Pacific Northwest and the nation in years to come," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. and the chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, in a letter of congratulations.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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