Without ever having to pack a suitcase or board a plane, scientists from around the world are working at the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy's newest user facility. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operates the facility, which is located in Richland, Wash.
Internet and web technologies allow remote access to the facility's unique collection of nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. Researchers using the "virtual" NMR facility can control instruments, communicate with local staff, retrieve and process data and share notes—all from the comfort of home. Nearly every step of an experiment, aside from preparing the final sample and physically insert-ing it into the instrument, can be performed remotely with a modern desktop computer.
The first group to use the virtual NMR facilities was a collaboration of Pacific Northwest researchers on-site and researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Calif. The two groups didn't meet in person for the first several months of their study of protein structures. Instead, they communicated and collaborated in a real-time environment using technologies developed by Pacific Northwest and integrated with publicly available audio and video-conferencing capabilities.
"Videoconferencing by itself isn't enough," said Jim Myers, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest. "But you can really do detailed scientific work together when every-one is sharing the same screen and discussing what they see while an instrument or analysis software is running."
The researchers shared notes, sketches, data—anything normally recorded in a paper notebook—through an Electronic Laboratory Notebook that could be viewed by both parties at the same time. Off-site researchers even could use the Internet to gain secure access to the facility, directly control the spectrometers and work with their data as well as ask staff for assistance anytime throughout the experiment.
The user facility's NMR capabilities include high-field spectrometers as powerful as 800 megahertz. These instruments enable researchers to characterize molecular structures of materials in solid or liquid form and can be used in experiments to determine the effects of the environment on biological health.
As a national scientific user facility, the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory does more than support the concept of collaborative use. It has created a Collaboratory that offers researchers remote access to the facility's unique equipment, instruments, computer resources and staff expertise.
The Collaboratory allows researchers to share information displayed on their desktop workstations, record and review data in electronic notebooks and even control some instruments remotely. These features are integrated with scientific resources such as data analysis software and scientific literature as well as videoconferencing and e-mail capabilities.
Instead of putting pencil to paper in a traditional laboratory notebook, researchers are beginning to take advantage of the benefits offered by the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory's electronic notebook technologies.
Much like its paper counterpart, the Electronic Laboratory Notebook serves as a scientist's tool for planning projects, organizing experiments, and entering results and interpretations. In addition, electronic notebooks allow researchers in more than one location to review the same information at the same time.
Researchers quickly can search electronic notebooks and organize information for ease of understanding rather than flipping through pages. Perhaps one of the most sigificant advantages is the capability to integrate electronic notebooks with laboratory instruments so that data and analyses are recorded directly in the notebook.
With this free software available publicly on the Internet, anyone can put the electronic notebook technology to use.
A chemistry professor at Eastern Oregon University is developing on-line lessons. Industrial mentors for student interns at Northwestern University provide assistance and evaluations based on electronic notebook entries.
Baltimore police officers have a vested interest in a technology that will help gather information at a crime scene. They're testing a vest teeming with special tools to quickly capture, store and relay vast amounts of data while they're in the field.
ScenePro is an interactive system developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that brings together geographic information systems, laser mapping and multimedia computing—and stores it all in a piece of clothing that can be worn by the person collecting evidence. This technology could improve the accuracy and efficiency of investigations in situations like the tragic shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School, where many people spent days combing a large crime scene for evidence, likely logging much of what they found by hand.
"So far the feedback from Baltimore has been positive," said Dan Irwin, who was with Pacific Northwest as a research scientist during ScenePro's development. The tests revealed the need for some minor modifications, but that was expected. "We'll tweak the system to make it just right," he said.
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Office also will give ScenePro a try before it's made available later this fall by Nichols Research, the company that worked with Pacific Northwest to commercialize the technology.
Technicians using ScenePro can create a digital map of the crime scene, including the dimensions of rooms and the precise locations of evidence. Further descriptions, including digital photographs, handwritten or keyed text, spoken comments and sketches, can be linked to the map electronically.
Rather than make guesses when collecting unfamiliar types of evidence, ScenePro allows technicians to refer to volumes of on-line documentation for assistance. Bar-coding tools give technicians the ability to tag and document each piece of evidence as it's discovered. ScenePro even will generate digital forms that can be completed in the field, eliminating the time-consuming process of transferring information from handwritten forms into a computer.
That simple concept has led to a new tool that will improve significantly the sensitivity of instruments used to weigh atoms and molecules.
Instruments used for environmental, biological, medical and other scientific research will be 40 to 80 times more sensitive with the help of a new tool developed by scientists at the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a national user facility operated by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The Electrodynamic Ion Funnel prevents ions in a sample from becoming lost as they're transferred into mass spectrometers—instruments used to accurately weigh atoms and molecules. Samples must be transformed into gas phase ions before these instruments can analyze them. Without the funnel, many of the ions are lost as they pass from areas of high pressure where they are created into the lower pressures where the spectrometer functions.
The Ion Funnel received an R&D 100 award for 1999, recognizing it as one of the year's most significant advancements in technology. See related story
The Ion Funnel concentrates the sample ions into a small stream, ensuring that more sample material makes it into the instrument for analysis. This reduces the chance that ions present in low concentrations will go undetected.
"By focusing more ions into the mass spectrometer, we can collect better data and improve our understanding of the substances being analyzed," said Richard Smith of Pacific Northwest, who invented the Ion Funnel.
More accurate and sensitive measurements help scientists study complex cell systems. This may contribute to new ways to diagnose diseases and a better understanding of the immune system, cellular signaling related to diseases such as cancer and how the environment affects health. At least two of the mass spectrometers at the user facility will be retrofitted with Ion Funnels this summer.