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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Celebrating 40 Years of Science & Discovery

Unique research generates unique solutions

Through the years, scientists and engineers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have contributed significant knowledge to fields such as nuclear technology, environmental science, and human health. PNNL also has conducted science that, in hindsight, seems unusual but nonetheless sought to address real-world needs.

For instance, although it's not nice to fool Mother Nature, at least one PNNL research project gave it a shot. PNNL helped initiate a program for shifting snowfall from the western crest of the Cascade Mountains to the eastern crest—with the goal of providing more water for dry Eastern Washington. The 1967 project was funded by the state of Washington and focused on the dispersal of dry ice particles into snow clouds being carried by prevailing winds to the eastern crest. At the time, the program reflected a growing interest by nations in cost-effectively modifying weather patterns to provide water where it's needed.

Barley blankets were used to feed reindeer.

Another fascinating project at PNNL was aimed at curbing world hunger. "Batina," named for both Battelle (operator of PNNL since 1965) and farina (a general term for cereal flours), was developed by a University of Michigan professor in concert with the Laboratory. The food resembled rice and was made from low-cost flours, vitamins and mineral supplements. At the time it was unveiled in 1968, it was viewed as a potential solution for malnutrition worldwide. The developers admitted that Batina's "pleasant, slightly nutty flavor" was offset somewhat by a less attractive quality—a "beany" odor emitted during cooking.

Other interesting inventions came from PNNL's early agriculture work. In the late 1970s, "barley blankets" emerged as a food source for reindeer. A group that owned a large herd in Alaska funded the work, which was designed to produce a constant supply of food for the deer. The animals typically scrounged for lichens and grasses in the winter, but a short Alaska growing season, hampered further by frozen soil, made conventional agriculture impossible. So researchers came up with barley blankets. The technique involved using a rack with stacked trays. Barley seeds were planted thickly in the trays. During 30 days of growth, the barley plants shot up and their roots interweaved to form a blanket. The blankets could be tossed out to the reindeer or dried and stored for winter use. Solving the winter feed issue was viewed as a step forward in making the animals a viable industry for Alaska natives.

Pullulators are long perforated cylinders used to grow crops vertically.

In Taiwan, the issue was a hungry populace. With crop lands stretched to the limits of productivity, the country began seeking innovative techniques to grow more food. In the 1970s, Taiwan funded an agricultural project that studied how crops could be grown vertically rather than horizontally, especially in normally unproductive areas such as mountainsides. A researcher at PNNL already had been working on a device known as a "pullulator," which consisted of long perforated cylinders packed with organic material and fertilizers. Seeds were planted in the perforations, and vertically-grown crops resulted. As part of the research for Taiwan, the device was used to grow spinach, soybeans, cabbage, strawberries and other crops.

"Although people may view some of these projects as different or unique, the research actually addressed important needs and the solutions were very creative and practical approaches," said David Eakin, a scientist at PNNL since 1977. "The pullulator, for example, was focused on increased space utilization for crop production. This concept has been used in greenhouse operations and is common now in home gardening techniques and decorative plants."

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