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PNNL scientist garners early career presidential award

Alexandre Tartakovsky earns PECASE award for pioneering work in environmental sciences

July 10, 2009 Share This!

  • Alexandre Tartakovsky's research uses dozens of monitoring wells to characterize the subsurface.

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RICHLAND, Wash. – A computational mathematician at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been recognized with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award honors his research on subsurface flow that addresses past and future energy needs: cleaning up buried nuclear or toxic contaminants and storing carbon dioxide from fossil fuels underground.

Announced by the White House, the PECASE is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers who are at the start of their careers.

"These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country," President Obama said. "With their talent, creativity, and dedication, I am confident that they will lead their fields in new breakthroughs and discoveries and help us use science and technology to lift up our nation and our world."

Alexandre Tartakovsky earned this award for his work trying to understand how contaminants move through the subsurface, that subterranean environment made of rocks, air, liquids like water or oil, and bacteria. Ultimately, such work will help reduce the impacts that nuclear and fossil fuel energy use have on the environment. Tartakovsky develops mathematical models to help researchers clean up nuclear or toxic contaminants from past practices or help future waste managers store carbon in the subsurface.

The models Tartakovksy works on are of fluids moving through the subterranean environment. He approached the problem not just from out of the box, but from out of this world. He has taken mathematical theories originally developed to understand the formation of stars and applied them to subsurface flow. The gases of a young star whirl around each other in fluid motion; so too do fluids meander through the subsurface.

Down below, the fluids made of gases and liquids — air and water, for example — react chemically with rocks and bacteria. Modeling that activity allows researchers to trap contaminants and in some cases transform them into harmless minerals. Similar processes occur when injected carbon dioxide meets what's underground.

According to Mike Kluse, PNNL's laboratory director, Tartakovsky's award emphasizes the importance of computational science in solving complex energy and environmental challenges.

"Alex has been developing and using computational tools to help us understand how contaminants and water move through and interact with the rocks and bacterial communities in the subsurface. This work can lead to better solutions for environmental remediation and carbon storage," Kluse said.

Tartatovsky performs some of his research at EMSL, DOE's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory on the PNNL campus. He earned a master's degree in hydromechanics and applied mathematics from Kazan State University in Russia in 1994, and a doctorate in hydrology from the University of Arizona in Tucson in 2002. He started at PNNL in 2004 after a postdoctoral stint at DOE's Idaho National Laboratory. He also teaches and supervises student researchers as an adjunct professor in civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University, Tri-Cities.

Each PECASE award winner will receive a citation, a plaque and a commitment from their agency for continued funding of their work for five years. Tartakovsky is one of 12 recipients of the award through the DOE, and one of four from DOE national laboratories managed or co-managed by Battelle.

Tags: Environment, EMSL, Operations, Staff Appointments

EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, is a national scientific user facility sponsored by the Department of Energy's Office of Science.  Located at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., EMSL offers an open, collaborative environment for scientific discovery to researchers around the world. Its integrated computational and experimental resources enable researchers to realize important scientific insights and create new technologies. Follow EMSL on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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