Editor's Notebook: Intellectual ferment makes the desert bloom

<p>Steve Forrester</p>

Where do you think the Pacific Northwest’s highest concentration of research scientists and PhD’s is?

Seattle?

Portland?

Neither. It’s likely that Richland, Wash., is the densest population of scientists with advanced degrees. And the big surprise is that they are not all working at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Their main research home is the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, operated by Battelle. With a $1 billion annual operating budget, Battelle has 4,000 employees in the Tri-Cities. But only between 3 percent and 4 percent of the PNNL budget is related to Hanford.

Nine editors of the EO Media Group met some of those scientists at the PNNL last week. We also listened to Anna King, the public radio reporter who covers Hanford. For someone who follows science news through headlines that come and go, this sustained dialogue over five hours was exhilarating.

Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle began operation of the PNNL in 1964, Founded by Gordon Battelle in 1929, Battelle is the largest U.S. research science organization that is nonprofit.

Our editors were especially drawn to the PNNL by the recent announcement that scientists there had found a way to store the energy generated by wind turbines. As described in popular media, the concept is to store this energy underground in porous basalt, using compressed air. We learned that PNNL?will shortly be launching a pilot project at Wallula, near Pendleton.

Why is this newest development so significant? Because electricity from wind turbines cannot be scheduled – as hydroelectric dams or coal power plants can be. What we have now is wind turbines generating electricity that is fed into the regional power grid at times when energy is not needed.

At a time when our national political process stymies innovation and progress and when national politicians seem to disparage and devalue science, it is reassuring to visit a facility like the PNNL. It reaffirms the belief in the mind and its ability to solve problems.

It would probably be easier to say what research the PNNL?is not exploring than to enumerate those it is. We heard presentations on the following topics: electric vehicles, storage of energy generated by wind power, carbon sequestration, offshore wind turbines, biomass as an energy source and fisheries research.

Over more than 50 years, the spectrum of significant research developments at PNNL is jaw-dropping. They include holography, compact disc technology, photovoltaic cells, the causes of acid rain and many more. Most recently, PNNL has developed the technology used to monitor nuclear activities in places such as North Korea.

Electric vehicles and the power grid was an especially timely discussion. Research scientist Michael Kintner-Meyer walked us through the data that PNNL is examining to determine “how many electric vehicles could we support on the Pacific Northwest power grid?” All vehicles could not recharge during peak electricity demand. An engineer within PNNL’s Advanced Grid Analytics & Renewable Energy Integration research group, Kintner-Meyer described an invention of the PNNL that will tell an electric vehicle the optimal time to recharge, based on regional power capacity.

Jet fuel is the top priority of biofuel research. The airline industry knows it must develop this option. Boeing is a funder of PNNL’s research.

Our editors traveled to Richland from as far away as Salem and Astoria and as close as Hermiston. The prosperity of the Tri-Cities, the high concentration of intellectual energy and innovation sets the place apart from its southern neighbor, which is northeast Oregon. Scotta Callister, editor of The Blue Mountain Eagle, and I were talking about the stark contrast of these two regions. In Grant County, which the Eagle serves, unemployment hovers at 12.2 percent.

It is perhaps improbable, but worth discussing how the PNNL might imitate the Oregon Health and Science University in its links to rural Oregon. In some ways that is already happening, with PNNL’s research into wind turbine energy storage and its work in biomass.

We don’t necessarily think of scientists as creative people – in the model of artists, writers and composers. But the intellectual ferment of a place like the PNNL is palpable. In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida notes that beckoning intelligence is one of the essential steps in bringing cities back to life. With PNNL, knowledge has caused the desert to bloom.

— S.A.F.

 

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