PNNL wins 3 awards for technology transfer

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has won three national awards for bringing to the marketplace technologies developed at the Department of Energy national lab.

The Federal Laboratory Consortium recognized PNNL for commercial partnerships that are helping to study live cells more easily, to detect trace gases in the atmosphere and to create a widely used product additive from plants rather than oil.

The latest Excellence in Technology Transfer awards received by the Richland lab brings its total awards from the consortium to 74, more than any other federal laboratory.

The Low Noise Quantum Cascade Laser Current Controller allows scientists to detect and measure smaller amounts of trace gases more accurately.

Knowing which gases exist in the atmosphere is critical to several fields, including climate research and pollution remediation. Laser systems are increasingly being used to identify and measure atmospheric gases, but have difficulty identifying gases in very small concentrations because of the "noise" of random fluctuations in laser wavelength and line width.

The system developed in Richland overcomes that problem by directing a beam into a tube containing a gas sample. A detector on the other end of the tube then measures what is left of the laser beam. Based on how much laser light is absorbed by the sample, scientists can determine the specific gases present and their concentrations.

Wavelength Electronics, a supplier of laser system components in Bozeman, Mont., licensed PNNL's current controller and is selling the technology as part of its gas sensors. The controller also has the potential to be used in systems that could help detect microbes, scan for skin cancer, sequence DNA and take remote measurements.

The second technology to be recognized uses plant byproducts to produce propylene glycol, a common additive in food, liquid detergents and cosmetics.

It commonly is made from petroleum, but Richland researchers developed a chemical catalyst that converts a plant-based compound into the additive so well that an agricultural processing company has built a production facility around it.

Archer Daniels Midland Co. licensed the catalytic process from PNNL in 2006. After adding processes to clean out impurities, the company built a pilot plant that showed the propylene glycol could be produced at a competitive cost.

Now a full-scale plant is being built in Decatur, Ill., and should be operating this spring.

The third 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 reduce the need for live animal testing.

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.

Scientist S.K. Sundaram and his colleagues worked with Simplex Scientific LLC of Middleton, Wis., to develop the technology.