For many of us, do-it-yourself endeavors typically consist of a home improvement project, a garden makeover, or a trending craft.
At the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, DIY projects are a bit more ambitious and involve the creation of specialized scientific instruments and prototypes of innovative technologies.
Also, we share the fruits of our labor with industry or the research community rather than with neighbors whom we hope to impress.
PNNL scientists and engineers often need the help of their fellow crafters to turn their great ideas into reality.
When our artisans use their engineering skills in machining, welding and fabrication to create novel instruments and prototypes, the results are far more impressive than a new patio or BBQ area.
For example, in an experiment related to national security, a laboratory machinist fabricated stainless steel spheres that are used to replicate realistic conditions in which nuclear material might be hidden by a smuggler.
Initially, the researchers wanted to conduct experiments shielding radioactive materials with lead or steel, but the steel shields available to them were too bulky and heavy.
To solve this problem, the machinist crafted precision spherical shields, specifically tailored to the researchers’ needs. By maximizing shielding while minimizing the material required, these spheres enable experiments that were previously not feasible.
The high-tech tools invented by PNNL scientists to aid their research often end up in future commercial products that are used worldwide, expanding their impact beyond their labs.
For more than three decades, researchers at PNNL have been improving the performance of mass spectrometers – highly sensitive analytical instruments used to separate the individual components of a mixture based on their weight.
These technologies have been licensed to several instrument manufacturers who continue to develop the devices for commercial sale.
In doing so, they bring PNNL’s innovation to the scientific community for use in many fields, including clean energy, environmental protection, and human health.
One of the most recent developments in this area is known as SLIM, short for Structures for Lossless Ion Manipulation.
Simply put, SLIM better separates and distinguishes the compounds in a mixture, making them easier to detect by mass spectrometers.
Coupled with high-resolution mass spectrometry, SLIM can analyze biological and chemical compounds up to a thousand times faster and more precisely than other methods.
MOBILion Systems, Inc. has licensed PNNL’s technology and is now developing SLIM-based tools that could be used to find biomarkers to reveal early-stage disease.
In another effort, scientists are building on a patented method for detecting and analyzing extremely small amounts of naturally occurring radiation.
While such ultratrace radiation does not pose a health risk, it is important in the manufacture of semiconductors and sensitive electronic detection equipment to know when even the smallest amounts are present.
Known as the collision cell, the PNNL innovation was developed and licensed to industry more than 25 years ago.
Over the past few years, our researchers have used it to detect radioactive thorium and uranium in gold when present in only a few parts per trillion.
This is helping to design highly sensitive ultra-pure gold detectors, which physicists hope will detect elusive particles that make up the universe.
PNNL chemists are also using the collision cell approach to inform the production of the world’s purest copper (another PNNL DIY) for detectors processing samples for International Non-Proliferation Treaty verification.
The phrase “many hands make easy work” applies to both home improvement projects and those that take place at PNNL.
We are grateful for the creativity and ingenuity of those who do what is necessary to advance scientific research and produce new knowledge. The results are really impressive!
Steven Ashby is director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.