The new director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory aspires to have the lab more widely recognized as a world-class scientific research institution and build the Northwest’s reputation as an intellectual powerhouse.
Steve Ashby, who has directed the Department of Energy lab in Richland for three weeks, spoke Monday at the annual meeting of the Tri-City Development Council.
When most people think of areas where high-tech jobs are clustered, they think of Silicon Valley, the Boston Route 128 corridor and the North Carolina Research Triangle, he said. A similar reputation is being built in the Northwest, largely in Seattle.
What the areas have in common are research institutions that anchor the attraction and incubation of high-tech industries, he said.
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In the Northwest, he sees the beginning of that with the University of Washington and some of the industries being built in Western Washington.
“So how do we leverage the research institutions we have here in (Washington State University) and PNNL to similarly attract high tech industry to Eastern Washington?” he asked.
Within the the laboratory he wants to develop the culture of a world-class institute and continue to attract the scientific, engineering and support professionals to make that happen. He also plans to work closely with area universities.
“One institution cannot solve the problems that are really challenging this nation,” he said. “If a single institution thinks it can solve those problems, it is either not thinking big enough or is not working on the right problems that are worthy of a national laboratory.”
He also plans to work with industry to bring PNNL innovations to the commercial market, he said.
“I look forward to leveraging some of the very large programs we have at the lab to attract more industrial players to the region to partner with us,” he said.
Facilities like the new Systems Engineering Laboratory, where much of the lab’s power engineering is done, that will open this summer on the PNNL campus could be a means to attract industry to the lab and community to collaborate.
“And once we’ve got them here we would like to talk about the possibility of them perhaps creating a presence in the region,” he said. “This is a partnership we’d like to build.”
The leadership of retiring PNNL director Mike Kluse, who also is chairman of the TRIDEC board, helped build PNNL into one of the best performing laboratories in the DOE system, a system that has been successful for decades, Ashby said.
“In my view as we go to that next level of excellence, it will be important to elevate the quality and impact of our science and technology across the range of programs that we run on behalf of the country,” he said.
Now PNNL is widely known as the nation’s premier laboratory in chemistry, environmental sciences and data analytics, he said.
The lab has leveraged that base to provide national leadership in nonproliferation, helping the nation understand the potential development and threat of the nuclear weapons that could endanger our country and the world, he said. It provides advice and assistance to all levels of government and advises policy makers on the technical capabilities of other countries.
Understanding of radionuclides has helped with the cleanup of the Cold War legacy at Hanford and other sites.
In climate science, the lab has the largest single contingency of scientists and engineers working on understanding the processes that are changing the planet and possible ways to mitigate changes.
In energy, it is a leader in the electric grid of the future, envisioning it and making it happen.
“It is indisputable the Tri-Cities provides national and sometimes local leadership in these four areas,” he said.
The vision for the lab’s future is to understand, predict and control the behavior of complex adaptive systems, building on that leadership, he said.
Research is under way in several areas.
A large focus is on the carbon cycle and its role in the climate.
Scientists are working to understand how and when the estimated 1 trillion tons of frozen carbon captured in permafrost may get converted into methane and released into the atmosphere.
To bring alternate, but intermittent, sources of energy, like sun and wind, into more practical use, PNNL is studying the use of large batteries, combining its expertise in chemistry, catalysts, computing and imaging. Its goal is to design batteries with higher energy density and better cycle times that work on the grid-scale.
The lab has demonstrated measurement and characterization techniques for the presence of short-lived radionuclides typically found after an explosion. The technology was used after the Fukushima disaster to help verify to the Japanese and U.S. governments that a partial meltdown was in progress. They technology also can be used to provide clues to a treaty violation.