Technology developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and already used at Hanford has been named one of the most innovative of the past year.
The national laboratory in Richland has been awarded two R&D 100 Awards, sometimes called the Oscars of Innovation, by R&D Magazine. It annually picks 100 of the most promising scientific breakthroughs.
The PNNL awards this year — for tools that track underground contaminants and speed carbon capture technology — bring PNNL’s R&D 100 Awards to an even 100 since the awards program began 47 years ago.
The technology used at the Hanford nuclear reservation, called E4D-RT, has been compared to medical scans that allow doctors to watch what’s happening inside a body in real time. But E4D-RT allows scientists and engineers to see what is happening underground in real time.
The technology links data collected in the field with off-site supercomputers to analyze the data and return images to the field or a website within minutes.
At Hanford it’s been used to address challenges that no other commercially available software could handle, according to PNNL.
In order to test the performance of how well this method is working we need to see what is happening underground.
Tim Johnson, PNNL computational geophysicist
Electrical resistivity tomography, which measures how difficult it is to pass an electrical current through the soil, has collected data where contaminated underground soil has been dried out in central Hanford. Soil desiccation has been tested to see if it can prevent contaminants from being carried deeper into the ground with moisture, such as from precipitation.
In the past, large amounts of low level radioactive liquid waste were disposed of in the ground in central Hanford as uranium fuel was processed to remove plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. The waste infiltrated the soil deep underground, making its excavation impractical as the nuclear reservation is currently undergoing environmental cleanup.
“In order to test the performance of how well this method is working we need to see what is happening underground,” said Tim Johnson, the PNNL computational geophysicist who developed the technology. “Remediation operators are doing things in the field — they need to know what is happening while they are doing the operation.”
The time-lapse images created by E4D-RT allow them to watch as the drying zone grows underground, showing areas that have been treated, he said.
E4D-RT also has been used at Hanford to monitor the spread of materials added to the soil to immobilize uranium contamination.
Four-dimensional images were provided every 12 minutes for four weeks to monitor the progression of the treatment zone.
E4D-RT also could be used to understand volcanic activity or to look at hydraulic fracturing operations.
The technology was initially developed for the Department of Defense. It was supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is in charge of PNNL, and its Office of Environmental Management, which is in charge of cleanup at Hanford.
It has potential applications to monitor and collect data about contamination at other DOE cleanup sites, according to PNNL.
It also may have applications for studies related to other projects, including understanding volcanic activity and looking at hydraulic fracturing operations.
“We can do really big problems, big imaging problems, and we can do them really fast,” Johnson said.
The second PNNL R&D 100 award was for sophisticated computational and modeling software to speed up the development of technology to capture carbon emissions from power plants.
The Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative tool set supports a vetting of options, complete understanding of how processes will operate at a lager scale and better understanding of risk as pilot scale carbon capture technologies are scaled up for commercial use.
The tool set is intended to reduce the time needed to commercialize carbon capture technologies and provide greater confidence that projects will succeed.