Here are the best inventions of the year from PNNL’s brain trust

Researchers at PNNL have developed a better way to rapidly detect trace amounts of toxic industrial chemicals.
Researchers at PNNL have developed a better way to rapidly detect trace amounts of toxic industrial chemicals. Courtesy PNNL

The acoustic gunshot detector an engineer was inspired to create in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting was awarded one of seven prestigious R&D 100 Awards brought home to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory this year.

R&D Magazine annually selects the top 100 breakthroughs in science and technology for what have been called the “Oscars of Invention.”

The seven awards that the Department of Energy lab in Richland received this year bring its total to 107 in the 55 year history of the award.

Here are its latest winning projects:

PNNL chief engineer Jim Skorpik led a team that developed a relatively inexpensive detector to alert law enforcement to gunshots fired in schools, churches and offices. Courtesy PNNL

Responding to mass shootings

The gunshot detector is a small, relatively inexpensive device that can be used indoors in classrooms, offices and churches can detect gunshots, distinguishing them from sounds like a firecracker or car backfiring better than the human ear.

Jim Skorpik, a chief engineer at PNNL, and his team adapted technology already developed for the military and the nation’s nuclear security with software to detect and distinguish gunshots.

It can be used to alert law enforcement within seconds that a shot was fired, where inside a building it was fired and what type of gun was used.

It is being commercialized by EAGL Technology into a system that not only notifies authorities but can activate a building lock down and stream video from the nearest camera.

Blood testing to detect diseases earlier

Researchers have developed technology that can look for biomarkers such as lipids and metabolites in blood samples, which have the potential to indicate diseases.

The results could give physicians the ability to personalize medicine based on an individual’s blood test results.

Called SLIM, for Structures for Lossless Ion Manipulations, is 1,000 times faster than existing systems, according to PNNL.

It also is better at distinguishing between molecules with similar masses but different structures and can identify trace differences in samples as small as a single cell.

A startup, MOBILion, is commercializing SLIM. Its goal is to develop a compact system that individual doctors could use.

It says the technology holds promise to detect disease earlier and to attack diseases at their roots instead of by their symptoms.

PNNL researchers have developed a small, efficient system to use waste heat rather than electricity to cool homes, buildings, cars and industrial processes. Courtesy PNNL

Using wasted heat to cool air

New technology takes a practical approach to use wasted heat to provide cooling in buildings, cars, trucks and industrial processes, saving energy and money.

PNNL has incorporated a proprietary nanomaterial into a new cooling system, which uses heat to drive the cooling process rather than electricity.

The technology, MARCool, can do the work of a traditional adsorption cooler, but with a system that is practical for more uses because it is smaller, lighter and less expensive, according to PNNL.

Most conventional air conditioners use large amounts of energy, resulting in 15 percent of U.S. energy usage going towards cooling.

MARCool was developed by PNNL and partner Arkema Inc.

Making cars more fuel efficient

Using lighter materials in cars and trucks makes them more fuel efficient, but creating a strong bond between disparate materials has been problematic.

Fusion welding cannot reliably bond metals such as steel and aluminum for strong, but lighter weight, car parts because they have different melting points.

But PNNL’s Friction Stir Scribe can join them without using bolts or rivets and without sacrificing strength, durability or safety.

It acts like a sewing machine, but uses a scribe to create a rivet-like interlock where two different types of metals are joined.

The technology expands the materials that can be used for strong, lightweight vehicle parts, such as sub-frames for the engine chassis, according to PNNL.

Detecting traces of toxic chemicals

PNNL has developed a way to identify trace amounts of gases, whether toxic industrial chemicals or from the proliferation of nuclear or chemical weapons, in the field rather than the laboratory.

The device, which uses infrared light from a laser, is a dramatic improvement over traditional detection methods, according to PNNL.

Rather than shooting a straight beam of light, it repeatedly folds it into a compact pattern within the device to reduce the size of a detection instrument.

The technology can find quickly detect substances down to parts per trillion within a sample, according to PNNL.

Called IRcell, it has been licensed to IRsweep, a provider of high-performance sensors.

Bringing cybersecurity to older utility systems

Modern cybersecurity tools have left crucial older systems behind, including some that manage the delivery of water and and electricity and transportation systems.

SerialTap was created by PNNL as an inexpensive, palm-sized device to protect those legacy systems from cyber attacks from around the globe.

A start-up company, Cynash, has licensed the technology and is commercializing it.

A suite of computer software can help assess possible environmental risks of storing carbon dioxide deep underground. Courtesy PNNL

Understanding underground CO2 storage risks

Storing large volumes of carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gases in deep underground geologic formations is one promising method to reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

But better understanding of possible environmental risks is needed, such as those from fluid leakage or earthquakes.

PNNL and four other national laboratories combined their expertise to develop a suite of software for computer modeling of risks.

The NRAP Toolset is being used by more than 250 research groups in industry and at universities and regulatory agencies.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews