RICHLAND -- Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has won four coveted R&D Magazine awards for new technologies.
The technologies worked on or developed at the Department of Energy national lab in Richland improve radiation detection for security forces, reduce dependence on fossil fuel and provide improved research tools for medical and other life sciences research.
R&D Magazine selects the 100 most innovative scientific and technological breakthroughs of the year from nominations spanning private, academic and government institutions.
This year's awards bring PNNL's total to 84 since the competition began in 1969, including 77 since 1988.
The lab's Ion Mobility Spectrometer on a Microchip dramatically improves the ability to detect and identify trace molecules that can be telltale signs of explosives in a briefcase or disease-revealing proteins in blood.
It's based on a previously developed method that uses strong vs. weak electric fields to separate electrically charged atoms or molecules called ions as they zoom through an instrument. That can be done more quickly by using a shorter "racetrack" for the ions with a more intense electric field to separate the pack of ions.
Short, narrow channels on a microchip allow ion separation to be done 100 to 10,000 times faster than previous instruments. The technology also improves the ability to measure abundant and rare compounds in the same sample.
The project was paid for by the National Institutes of Health, DOE's Office of Science and PNNL.
The second award was for the lab's IncubATR -- the Live-Cell Monitor.
Researchers have hooked up a cell culture incubator to a spectroscope that detects, in living cells, important biological and chemical changes invisible to the naked eye. Cultured cells are difficult to study in real time because they need constant food, shelter and warmth to stay alive. This technology overcomes that difficulty, which could speed up scientific discovery, reduce costs and end the need for live animal testing in some cases.
The IncubATR provides an atmosphere in which cells thrive while the spectroscope takes periodic and rapid measurements. It can show toxicologists within minutes how live cells respond to nanomaterials or medical researchers how hormones are affecting cancer cells.
"We hope it will change the way live cells are studied in labs everywhere," said PNNL physical scientist S.K. Sundaram in a statement. He and his colleagues, using PNNL money, worked with Simplex Scientific LLC of Wisconsin to develop the technology.
The third award was for the GammaTracker, a rugged, portable device that points the user in the direction of a source of radiation being detected and identifies it.
Designed for security personnel, the handheld device distinguishes different radioactive elements and identifies where the radiation is coming from, such as a suspect hiding in a throng of people. Conventional instruments that can distinguish between substances such as plutonium and radioactive iodine in a person who recently has undergone a medical procedure are too cumbersome for the same use.
PNNL's Cari Seifert and her colleagues developed the software that determines where the radiation is based on how it travels through 18 crystals developed at the University of Michigan.
The fourth award was for Propylene Glycol from Renewable Sources, a system which produces the chemical from plant byproducts rather than petroleum. Propylene glycol is an additive used in liquid detergents, cosmetics and food.
PNNL developed a chemical catalyst to convert a plant-based compound into the additive.
It works so well and inexpensively that Archer Daniels Midland Co. added processes to clean up impurities and built a full-scale plant in Illinois designed to produce 25 percent of the propylene glycol used in the nation.
The process uses feed stocks such as glycerol, which is left over from the production of biodiesel.
"Not only can we reduce the use of fossil fuels, but we can make better use of a byproduct that green companies are already generating," said PNNL chemical engineer Alan Zacher.
PNNL staff will receive their awards at a ceremony in Florida in November.