PNNL is located in Richland, Washington, and operates a marine research facility in Sequim, Washington. PNNL employs 4,200 staff, has an annual budget of more than $725 million, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle) for the federal government since the lab's inception in 1965.
PNNL was created when the government's research laboratory at DOE's Hanford Site was separated from Hanford operations. The lab's original mission was focused on nuclear technology and the environmental and health effects of radiation. PNNL gradually evolved into a national laboratory with a diversified, multiprogram mission.
PNNL performs work for many Department of Energy offices and other government agencies (e.g., Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, National Institutes of Health, etc..), as well as private industry. In addition to basic research, its mission includes solving complex problems in energy, national security, the environment and life sciences.
PNNL is also home to the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL). This "user facility" provides integrated experimental and computational resources for discovery and technological innovation in the environmental molecular sciences.
PNNL is the largest employer in the Tri-Cities area and one of the largest in Eastern Washington. Several hundred Ph.D.s work for the laboratory on various aspects of science and technology development.
Current research at PNNL is centered around six "core competencies":
In July 2006, a PNNL research team published a proteomic study that was cited as a major step in establishing a common cause for neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Proteomics techniques confirmed that nitration contributes to and may be the cause of these diseases. Recognized as an impressive demonstration of the power of systematically applying proteomics, this single study multiplied that number of known contributors to neurodegenerative diseases by a factor of five, and may have uncovered the mechanism for brain deterioration.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's history began in 1965 as a means to perform research and development for the Hanford Site. The Laboratory's first projects were based on the needs of the Hanford Site and included protecting the environment, fabricating reactor fuel, and designing reactors.
On April 27, 1964, Battelle submitted a proposal to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to run the Hanford Laboratories, which conducted research and development for the Hanford Site. The proposal stated the net fee resulting from the contract for 5 years plus an initial appropriation of $5 million of Battelle funds would be invested in facilities that promoted research and development around the Pacific Northwest. In return, Battelle asked for and was granted the ability to use the laboratories for other research projects that did not involve the Hanford Site. In 1968, Pacific Northwest's first four buildings won Industrial Research Magazine's Laboratory of the Year award for architectural design.
When Battelle assumed management in 1965, the Hanford Laboratories were renamed Pacific Northwest Laboratory. The Laboratory was an independent research entity from Hanford Site operations.
When the Laboratory's doors opened, its primary mission was research and development related to nuclear energy and peaceful uses of nuclear materials. One of the significant projects of this era was Pacific Northwest's design of the Fast Flux Test Facility. The purpose of this facility was to test fuels and materials for the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor, the cornerstone of the Atomic Energy Commission's commercial nuclear power program.
Pacific Northwest was chosen to manage the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve by the Atomic Energy Commission. This large stretch of land adjacent to the Hanford Site was a relatively undisturbed area of dry grasslands with rolling hills. Pacific Northwest was charged with protecting the natural ecosystem from intrusion, conducting research, and educating the public about the land.
Pacific Northwest's mission continued to broaden. In 1969, Pacific Northwest was chosen by NASA to analyze lunar material collected from the entire Apollo program. Pacific Northwest measured the concentration of primordial and both solar and galactic cosmic-ray-produced radionuclides in 75% of the lunar materials.
Because of the broad range of talent at the Laboratory and its ability to pursue nongovernment projects, the Laboratory became involved in a wide-range of projects. James Russell and Ray Walker, researchers at the Laboratory, believed sound and images could be reproduced digitally if a way were found to store the massive amounts of data. At the time, punch cards and magnetic tape were used to store digital data - unacceptably slow and bulky options. Russell reduced the size of the data, using tiny optical images of the digits. He decided a computer could read the information using microscopic lenses and a laser light source. Today, this innovation serves as the critical design element for compact discs and disc players that are manufactured and marketed worldwide.
In the early 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission made two major announcements: the management of the Fast Flux Test Facility would be transferred to the Hanford Engineering Development Laboratory and all of the remaining reactors at Hanford except n reactor would be shut down. The N Reactor operated from 1963 until 1987 and was deactivated in July 1998.
As the nuclear program underwent changes, research expanded in energy, environment, health, and national security. Research for private industry, small business, and government agencies increased as did work for the Atomic Energy Commission.
Pacific Northwest research continued to expand through changes in the Atomic Energy Commission. The Commission itself segmented into the Energy Research and Development Administration and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 1977, the U.S. Department of Energy replaced the Energy Administration and consolidated federal energy programs.
During this time, Pacific Northwest developed vitrification, a process to turn hazardous waste and glass-forming materials into glass. Other envioromental contributions were made at the Marine Sciences Laboratory.
In the health fields, researchers developed an acoustic holography technique that allows medical personnel to view internal organs without an operation, detect fetal abnormalities, and locate blood clots. Other technologies developed included a simple, effective method to measure the loss of minerals from bones and an intravaginal contraceptive device.
The decade closed on one of the most publicized activities at the Laboratory, the creation of the Moonlight Mice. Built by a team of researchers in their off-hours, these three mice competed in several regional competitions as well as the national contest sponsored by IEEE Spectrum. The goal was simple, complete the 8-foot-by-8-foot maze as fast as possible. The Moonlight Express proved its decision-making abilities with the best learning capability through the maze in sequential runs. Its times improved from an initial run of 1 minute 41 seconds to 31.1 seconds on the third run. The Moonlight Flash and Moonlight Special finished first and third, respectively, in the wall hugger category. In this category, no computer processing was involved. The mice simply hugged one wall of the maze and went as fast possible. Superior maneuverability was the key here.
In May 1980, the dormant volcano Mount St. Helens erupted. Immediately afterwards, Pacific Northwest researchers began collecting and analyzing samples of ash to determine potential environmental and health impacts. The Laboratory was also involved in public education efforts.
Health-related work continued to be a focus at Pacific Northwest. One example was the first portable blood irradiator. Research on this technology began in the early 1970s. Then, there were no mechanisms to treat blood diseases and help suppress rejection of transplanted organs or tissues. The manufacture and delivery of the irradiators and the development of safer, more effective protocols occurred between the Laboratory and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It was Pacific Northwest's first Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. A CRADA is a contractual agreement between a federal laboratory and one or more industrial or university partners who agree to collaborate, share costs, and pool the results on a particular research and development project.
In the mid-1980s, Pacific Northwest Laboratory became one of the multiprogram laboratories in the U.S. Department of Energy's national laboratory system and in October, 1987 absorbed the programs and research staff from the former Hanford Engineering Development Laboratory. While there are dozens of national laboratories, there are only nine multiprogram national laboratories. These labs augment America's existing academic and industrial research infrastructure. Research at the laboratories addresses national needs in such areas as environment, national security, health, manufacturing, high-performance computing, advanced materials, and other areas.
In 1995, the Laboratory officially added "National" to its name, becoming the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
In October 1996, after almost 10 years of planning, EMSL opened its doors to researchers from scientific communities around the world. Other lab work included reducing pollutants, turning waste products into valuable chemicals, and allowing people to make better informed decisions about the environment.
The Laboratory worked as part of a national program involving automobile manufacturers. Researchers at the Laboratory worked on perfecting superplastic forming, a method to produce strong, lightweight vehicle parts. These lighter parts will allow the vehicle to use less gasoline, increase performance, and reduce pollution. Working with a private company, researchers at Pacific Northwest created a way to convert wood pulp, a waste product from the paper manufacturing process, into levulinic acid.
Researchers at Pacific Northwest also studied the global environment create effective global climate models, including cloud formation and radiative properties of clouds. In addition, the Laboratory created energy efficiency centers to promote economic growth while mitigating its harmful effects and participating on the United Nations panel on climate change assessments.