How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


May 20, 2002
Volume 80, Number 20
CENEAR 80 20 pp. 32-36
ISSN 0009-2347

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Creative chemistry, biology, plus powerful instruments and computers propel Pacific Northwest National Laboratory into proteomics era


"We're not Hanford" is a theme that runs throughout Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) as it tries to distinguish itself as a multiprogram, national lab separate from its more famous former plutonium-producing neighbor.

INSTRUMENTATION Researcher sets up experiment on 800-MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, one of 15 NMR systems, ranging in power from 300 to 900 MHz, in operation at PNNL.
Lab management may want to clear up any confusion about PNNL's Hanford connection, but the lab does sit on the edge of The Department of Energy's Hanford Reservation on the desert plains of southeastern Washington, near the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima Rivers. And the laboratory came into being in 1965 to provide research support for Hanford's scientists and engineers as they produced plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Although U.S. weapons plutonium production ended in the late 1980s, the Hanford-PNNL connection remains strong.

About $110 million of the lab's $537 million fiscal 2001 budget is earmarked to aid Hanford, but now PNNL supports the program to clean up the environmental mess left by the bomb makers. The cleanup is expected to cost at least $50 billion and take decades to complete.

The lab still retains a strong defense flavor with nearly half its funding related to national security. But now the focus is mostly on homeland defense and nonproliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

However, PNNL scientists needn't worry about Hanford confusion. They have moved beyond that historical tie.

In fact, over the past two months the lab has announced two big additions that are expected to catapult it along a path it set several years ago into cellular research and proteomics.

In April, PNNL announced the purchase of a $24 million, 8.3-teraflop supercomputer and began installation of one of the world's largest, highest performing nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. Both are expected to greatly enhance chemical, biological, and life sciences R&D at the lab, disciplines that managers say will be core
areas of growth for PNNL's future.

The lab is the youngest of DOE's nine national multiprogram labs, a designation that was formalized in 1995. Although now a "national" lab, PNNL has strong regional roots in the Richland, Wash., community, says Lura J. Powell, PNNL director and senior vice president of Battelle Memorial Institute, the nonprofit corporation that has managed PNNL since its birth.

"Before 1965, it was just Hanford out here, and in terms of business, there was not a whole lot else," Powell says. "The Atomic Energy Commission--DOE's predecessor--wanted to encourage economic growth and a diversified economy in the region so if plutonium production pulled out there would be something left, not just the dusty days of the past."

One of Battelle's strong suits, she says, is taking fundamental science and turning it into technologies and products with marketplace potential. That strength has grown at PNNL. And Powell wants it to continue under her leadership.

Powell is a chemist and a former American Chemical Society board member. One of the first women to lead a national, multipurpose DOE lab, Powell came to PNNL two years ago after a 27-year scientific career, most of which was at the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards & Technology. During her last five years there, she ran the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) (C&EN, March 13, 2000, page 35).

ATP funds technologies with good commercialization prospects sometime in the future but with very high risks at the moment. Powell oversaw an annual investment portfolio of more than $100 million.

Although liked by scientists, ATP has taken a drubbing from some in Congress who call it "corporate welfare" and want to shut the program down. The fight was particularly intense during Powell's years at ATP, but it helped forge her views of the importance of the government's role in aiding technology transfer from lab to marketplace.

At PNNL, the very relationship between Battelle and DOE encourages commercialization and collaboration with scientists and engineers outside of the lab, she says.

Going back to the original 1965 contract, Battelle was allowed to conduct research for private contractors using DOE facilities, and DOE was able to use Battelle-owned equipment on government jobs. Although PNNL is a DOE lab, the buildings and equipment are jointly owned. Powell estimates that Battelle owns about half the PNNL facilities, which amounts to about 300 acres of land and 1 million sq ft of buildings.

The arrangement gives the lab "scientific leverage," she says, increasing the research power for both DOE and Battelle.

"There is a caveat," she quickly adds. "DOE work always has to come first. We are a national lab. But we have the ability to increase the power of taxpayer dollars for national problems."

Also under the Battelle/DOE contract, once a technology has been developed for its originally funded purpose, Battelle can buy patent protection on that technology and further develop it for new uses.

In those cases, any resulting royalties to Battelle are split between the corporation and the government and reinvested back to the lab. Advocates also note this benefits taxpayers by saving money and society by bringing new products to market. And it helps the lab by generating funds for new equipment, staff, and R&D.

PNNL likes to tout its success in commercializing products. For instance, lab management points to a recognition program run by the Federal Laboratory Consortium, a nationwide organization of 700 federal labs and centers. PNNL has received 51 awards for transferring outstanding technologies since the recognition program began in 1984, the most awards won by any one lab.

Battelle has more than 200 active licenses in place for patented or copyrighted technologies developed by PNNL, and last year it filed more than 100 patent applications for PNNL inventions. Over the past five years, the lab has provided technical assistance to more than 500 companies--mostly in the Northwest--to help them get started or establish new product lines.

For example, lab managers single out a contract and collaboration with Motorola in which the company eventually built its own advanced molecular beam epitaxy deposition and analysis system based on a PNNL design and prototype. PNNL and Motorola continue to jointly use this technology for nanoscale research on semiconductor wafers.

Such collaboration with scientists in industries, universities, and other federal labs greatly strengthens PNNL research, Powell says. "You wrap together different views into a highly leveraged and a very relevant program. Working with a variety of people ensures that your projects are truly relevant and highly important," she continues.

The lab's future, Powell predicts, will be "the interface of life sciences and informational sciences." She intends to accelerate the lab's strong core capability in chemistry and biology by solidly linking it to computational biology.

PNNL largely missed out in playing a big role in the race to map the human genome, she says, but adds that that will not be the case with the next effort--proteomics.

She says PNNL's emphasis on chemical and biological science and its NMR equipment, mass spectrometers, and supercomputers will help push it to the lead in this area. Much of that research will be conducted at the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a four-year-old DOE user facility on the PNNL campus.

The facility has a suite of equipment critical to cellular research and proteomics, notes Allison A. Campbell, EMSL deputy director.

Along with 15 NMR units, PNNL has a complement of mass spectrometers, advanced computer systems, and data visualization technologies. By 2003, its new supercomputer should be up and running. It will be geared to problems in molecular science.

EMSL caters to users, Campbell emphasizes. "We help them build equipment and tailor it to their needs. We create a problem-solving environment," she adds. "We know we are distant and it is expensive to get here, so we try to help users solve problems while they are here."

More than half of the 1,400 users never actually come to the lab. They send samples to PNNL and access instruments over the Web through a shared desktop computer system, she says.

"Our scientists and users see each other's cursors and interact through the Web," she notes. NMR-related experimentation usually takes a week or more, she adds, and the remote ability allows researchers to stay at their own institutions while collecting data 24 hours a day.

Powell, the scientist, manager, and consummate PNNL booster, predicts that proteomics research will complement other research done at the lab-- energy production and conservation, global climate change, human health, bioremediation, pathogenesis from biowarfare agents, and more.

And she predicts more growth, more collaborations, and more technologies for DOE and the marketplace, springing from the Washington plains.

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Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

Cover Story
Creative chemistry, biology, plus powerful instruments and computers propel Pacific Northwest National Laboratory into proteomics era

Chemistry And Biosciences Are Priorities At PNNL

The Hanford Connection

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