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Breakthroughs Magazine

At a Glance

NASA contract allows PNNL to improve space travel

Advancements in microtechnology may unveil methods for regenerating breathable oxygen and rocket propellants in space, allowing astronauts to conduct research on Mars
(illustration courtesy of NASA).

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been contracted by NASA to manipulate microtechnology—small-scale electronic and digital systems—to produce rocket propellant in space and breathing oxygen for interplanetary travel.

These microchemical and thermal systems, or MicroCATS, will be used to produce propellant from resources found on Mars and the moon. They also will be designed to regenerate breathable air for life support.

The NASA contract is valued at $13.7 million over four years. "The contract is four times larger than any PNNL has previously had with NASA," says Martin Kress, Battelle's NASA relationship manager. "We hope this technology system ushers in an entirely new approach for lunar and Martian exploration and habitation."

Gravity independence and reduced size and weight make microtechnology an ideal candidate for many NASA applications.

Dr. Ray Orbach, Director of the DOE Office of Science (left), and Stefano Stefanini, Deputy Chief of Mission, Italian Embassy, sign Annex VIII.

Agreement partners U.S. and Italian research efforts

Representatives of the Italian government and the U.S. Department of Energy have approved an amendment to a 1995 Agreement of Cooperation for research and development. "This agreement is a great step toward moving PNNL capabilities into new markets," said Tara Eschbach, the Lab's relationship manager for the National Agency for Environmental Protection and Technical Services (APAT).

The amendment allows scientific and technical transfers between APAT and DOE's Office of Science. The agreement will be mutually beneficial by improving the technical quality of Italian research and policy development and allowing DOE scientists access to research facilities and scientists in Italy who are conducting similar work.

Areas of exchange include renewable energy, carbon management and global climate change, waste management, decontamination and decommissioning, environmental remediation and restoration, environmental safety, and public outreach and risk communication.

Students donate research vessel to Marine Research Operations

Student inventors launch their underwater research vessel for a demonstration of its diving and data collection capabilities.
(photo courtesy of Martin Murray).

While most high school students spend their weekends hanging out, five students from Port Townsend, Wash., chose to spend their Saturdays using math and engineering to create an underwater research vessel. Referred to as the ROV, the vessel was designed for diving to the depths of the Puget Sound to conduct marine research.

Local entrepreneur Gary McLuen challenged the students to develop the unmanned, remotely operated ROV. Upon completion, the students gifted it to PNNL's MSO facilities.

"This vehicle will become an important resource for PNNL scientists as we work to examine and sustain our precious northwest marine ecosystem," said Dick Ecker, director, PNNL Marine Research Operations (MSO), Sequim.

The vehicle collects and stores real-time data such as the levels of dissolved oxygen in water, vehicle depth, water temperature, turbidity and pH levels.

"So far we've used the ROV for demonstrations," said Parks Gribble, development engineer, MSO. "But we will use it for other measurements required for various programs."

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