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Special Report - Environmental Renaissance: PNNL researchers master the art of predictive sciences that use environmental stories of the past to paint a balanced future

Dr. Rod K. Quinn is the director of the Environmental Technology Directorate (ETD) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Under his leadership, the directorate applies scientific expertise to solve current and future environmental challenges in our own backyard and around the world. ETD contributes to the cost-effective cleanup of contaminated nuclear weapons sites, protecting human health and the environment from the effects of contaminants, improving knowledge on the impacts of climate change, and deploying air- and water-neutral technologies for energy generation.

Rod addresses how PNNL is revolutionizing the state of the art with predictive science—solving existing environmental problems and creating a safer and cleaner environment for the future.

What are your thoughts on global environmental challenges?

There is an overwhelming global realization that we—as individuals, corporations and government—must do things right the first time in terms of environmental citizenship. If we don't, the consequences are evident in devastating events, from industrial accidents such as Chernobyl or the Valdez oil spill to natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis amplified by human activities.

In many cases, we've acted and then cleaned up the consequences. With demands constantly taxing the environment—and increasing—this is no longer a viable option. We have complex environmental concerns to address now, and new ones are rapidly and consistently emerging. As our nation seeks to ease national dependence on foreign oil, the environmental impacts of alternative energy solutions must be a top priority.

Where do the nation's greatest environmental challenges lie?

Our greatest challenge is time and information. As a country, we need sound scientific research to explain and even anticipate the environmental cost and consequences of human behavior. We are discovering things that generations ago we didn't think would affect our environment the way they are. For example, researchers at PNNL's Marine Sciences Laboratory on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state found that human contraceptives could impact the fertility of trout; the synthetic estrogen in birth control pills eventually enters the municipal wastewater system. We've come to find out that trout populations are affected; beyond that, this discovery has forced us to consider greater human health impacts of everyday life. How are compounds that enter the soil, groundwater and air affecting us long-term in the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe? Answering these questions will help decision makers balance the needs of our ecosystem and human health along with economic realities.

As we gain these insights, there is understandably a sense of urgency about finding solutions faster. Recognizing the rich resources the Pacific Northwest holds and their ties to the economic health of our region, Washington Governor Gregoire and Oregon Governor Kulongoski have made finding this balance a legislative priority. This is another great example of how working together, we can achieve more. We can meet the challenges with solutions and head off future impacts.

How will today's research affect the environment 10 years from now?

Everything humans do impacts the environment—from what we dispose of in landfills to the chemicals used in our daily activities that are released into our ecosystem—mainly soil, water and air. Add in impacts from industrial and government operations, and the outlook for the environment is hazy.

Driving toward a predictive science model, we can make this picture clearer. This model is based on mechanisms to pinpoint negative effects presymptomatically, rather than relying on overt symptoms. In the medical field, health practitioners use high blood pressure as a potential indicator of heart disease. However, often by the time high blood pressure is detected, the body already shows signs of damage. We're looking at these things differently to avoid that. Researchers at PNNL are striving for new ways to predict the effects of our actions so we can minimize or eliminate the stresses to the environment. Predictive science can teach us how to create new technologies and modify our behaviors today so we are not negatively impacted in the future.

One area we are just beginning to understand is how nanoparticles might affect the human respiratory system. Nanotechnologies offer promising solutions ranging from cancer treatments to sustainable energy and clean water. But a potential downside may be the release of tiny particles into the environment. Our three-dimensional virtual respiratory tract model demonstrates how pollutants enter, travel and collect in the body. By studying this, we are beginning to understand human health effects of nanotechnologies.

What other kinds of environmental research are under way to reverse future impacts?

Water management is another key environmental priority for the United States. This precious resource is a central element to consider as we search for new energy solutions, particularly water-intensive options like coal recovery. The Laboratory is partnering with the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho to understand and predict how the Pacific Northwest water system will be impacted by climate change and new energy resource development.

Also of significant regional importance to the Pacific Northwest is the cleanup and prevention of pollution in the Puget Sound. This critical body of water, which hosts large shipping ports and the major urban areas surrounding Seattle, is being threatened by historic practices; continued population growth is another challenge. PNNL's expertise in restoring and managing water resources, from the mountain snowpack to the salt water, is resolving some of these issues and preventing unfavorable impacts.

How is PNNL meeting these challenges?

Because global environmental problems are incredibly complex, we must bring together the best scientists and engineers in the field. PNNL is proud of its outstanding reputation and vast experience in an array of scientific disciplines, including environmental sciences. The Laboratory's network of partnerships involves stakeholders at the federal, state and local levels. We are working together to identify and determine the best path forward on environmental issues.

I think with our history, we are particularly well-poised to make a difference. For more than 40 years, the Laboratory has undertaken complex issues at the Hanford Site, a former plutonium production area in southeastern Washington. Our geologists, hydrologists, chemists, physicists, and computer scientists have characterized unique waste streams, designed treatment methods and storage forms, and helped remediate the soil and groundwater.

Over the years, we have applied that knowledge and expertise to other projects. For example, our work in separating problematic elements out of radioactive waste led to an understanding of how to remove radionuclides that could enter the body from a dirty bomb explosion. Currently, we're investigating chitosan, obtained from lobster, crab and shrimp shells, as an agent to bind radionuclides in the body to stop them from damaging the liver, kidneys and other organs.

Additionally, our decades of experience in subsurface science may serve to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide—implicated in global climate change—emitted by coal-fired power plants. That expertise has positioned us to discover ways to capture carbon dioxide deep underground. By developing methods for making carbon sequestration safe and affordable, PNNL will contribute to stabilizing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. This is but one part of how the Laboratory is contributing to the development of environmentally-friendly and economically viable energy solutions.

What does PNNL envision for the future?

We are focused on driving toward scientific solutions that will help address environmental challenges before they turn into a devastating event. At PNNL, we are well-positioned and committed to blazing a new path forward—one that cleans up waste, prevents future environmental insults and uses natural resources responsibly. I believe that if we stay focused on this mission, PNNL will greatly contribute to ensuring a better quality of life for future generations.

(Photo caption: ETD Director Rod K. Quinn)

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