Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” That is especially true in research and development. New technologies and creative solutions do not materialize overnight or on their own.
Behind every invention — big or small — is a talented individual or team who had a novel idea and was willing to take a risk.
The scientists and engineers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory do both every day. In fact, during the course of a year, our researchers file more than 200 invention reports — about one every business day. And they are issued a patent for a unique concept or innovative technology about every week. In total, our researchers have been granted 2,452 U.S. and foreign patents since Battelle started managing PNNL in 1965.
Part of our mission as a national laboratory is to transfer our technologies from the lab to industry, where they can be further developed and put to use. Through the years, we have signed more than 800 licenses with companies that want to use PNNL technologies in their products. These include foundational technology for the compact disc and the bar code, advanced mass spectrometry, airport security scanners, cybersecurity software and devices that “see” inside sealed containers to detect contraband.
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Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of recognizing 147 PNNL staff members for their contributions to incredible inventions and novel computer codes, valuable patents, national awards for technology and technological advancements, and innovative technology transfer to the private sector.
We also recognized three of our most prolific and impactful inventors. Zimin Nie was announced as PNNL’s 2015 Inventor of the Year. Wendy Bennett and Xiaohong Shari Li were named Battelle Distinguished Inventors, an honor bestowed on those who have earned 14 or more U.S. patents — a career milestone reached by only 26 others throughout PNNL’s history. They are the first PNNL women to earn these honors.
These researchers, like many at PNNL, do research and development. The two often go hand in hand. PNNL conducts fundamental research that seeks to understand the world around us. We apply that scientific knowledge and our engineering know-how to create technological solutions. Our researchers work across disciplines and build teams to anticipate and address the pressing needs of our sponsors. Nie, Bennett and Li exemplify this spirit of innovation and teamwork.
Nie was honored for her significant contributions to the development of large-scale electrochemical energy storage technologies that enable renewable (but intermittent) energy sources like solar and wind to be incorporated into the grid and will ultimately result in a more reliable, efficient, cost-effective and sustainable energy system. She and her team developed new electrolytes and additives that significantly improve the performance of new redox flow battery technologies.
As a materials scientist, she also conducts fundamental research in materials, catalysis, metal organic frameworks and other porous materials.
Nie holds 10 U.S. patents and three foreign patents on batteries, catalysts and other electrochemical devices, with another 18 patents pending. She has been recognized as a key contributor on 11 licenses. One licensee, Washington-based UniEnergy Technologies, is a PNNL spinoff operating the largest-capacity flow battery in North America — supporting the Washington State University and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories campuses in Pullman.
Bennett is a senior research scientist who has done pioneering work in thin-film coating design, deposition and characterization, as well as micropower and nanostructures for lithium batteries. This research has led to better performing batteries for myriad applications. She has earned 14 U.S. patents and six foreign patents, and has another 10 pending. Three of her technologies have been licensed: barrier coatings to Vitex, microtechnology to Velocys and lithium battery technology to Vorbeck. Wendy’s perseverance is evident, both in the lab and in competitions as a triathlete. As part of our Safety and Operations Council, Wendy also helps identify and address potential risks that could interfere with researchers’ ability to work safely.
Li is a chemical engineer who has made important advances in materials — specifically nanomaterial synthesis and film deposition — that will lead to faster computers and better fuel cells. Her recent work focuses on more efficient ways to capture carbon dioxide from power plants. Shari has 18 U.S. patents and nine foreign patents to date, with 15 more pending. She has helped develop intellectual property that has been licensed to Archer Daniels Midland, Bacterin, Velocys and JSR Corporation in Japan. When she’s not conducting her research or helping others with theirs, Shari is involved in organizing special events and activities for the Tri-Cities Chinese American Association.
Nie, Bennett and Li are three exceptional researchers who embody the creativity, perseverance and passion that PNNL is all about. They exemplify the best of our 4,400 employees who do amazing things every day — and who drive innovation that will lead the way to a better world.
Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly.