By Michael Wolcott, Associate Vice President for Research, Office of Clean Technology

Washington State University’s system-wide collaborative research partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has a long and successful history. With WSU Tri-Cities campus and the PNNL research complex situated less than a mile apart in Richland, Wash., the collaboration has provided hands-on educational experiences that lead to career opportunities for WSU alumni. Through joint appointments where WSU faculty perform collaborative research with PNNL scientists, our partnership has provided a solid foundation for our research aspirations.

By uniting our strengths, WSU and PNNL have built unique opportunities for our graduate students, forged scientific breakthroughs, and delivered innovative solutions.

And, our relationship just took a significant leap forward.

In an April ceremony at WSU Tri-Cities, WSU and PNNL announced the formation of The WSU-PNNL Institutes, a collection of three joint institutes that will advance science and technology in nuclear science and technology, advanced grid, and bioproducts. This collaboration will extend beyond WSU Tri-Cities, utilizing WSU system-wide research capabilities.

The Three Institutes and Their Research Impact

The WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute will develop new understanding and control of how materials evolve in radiation environments. This research is directed at preventing the use of illicit nuclear materials, resolving issues in nuclear waste management, and advancing next-generation nuclear energy.

A resilient power grid reduces the magnitude and the duration of disruptive events, including natural disasters such as hurricanes or malicious events including cyberattacks. The WSU-PNNL Advanced Grid Institute will create and implement a national-scale simulation platform and data framework to enable advanced grid controls and operations for complex power systems of the future. The institute will bring together innovative electric power system modeling, multi-site testing, and validation capabilities at both institutions to enhance grid resilience.

The production and use of liquid fuels, chemicals, and plastics from petroleum result in unsustainable atmospheric emissions, and solid and liquid wastes. The WSU-PNNL Bioproducts Institute will leverage cutting edge science, engineering, and analysis to transform engineered plants and industrial, agricultural and municipal waste into valuable renewable materials and chemicals.

Strengthening Collaboration and Forging New Discoveries

The three institutes’ collaborations are designed to build on the strengths of our relationship and combine the unique talents and resources of WSU and PNNL to address important scientific and technological challenges. Our partnership also will elevate the quality and impact of research at both partner organizations, through seamless collaborations on multidisciplinary projects and the use of unique facilities and instrumentation at both institutions.

Equally important, together, WSU and PNNL will continue to educate and train the next generation of scientists and engineers in relevant research disciplines. Indeed, the three institutes will serve as a beacon for new talent in the fields of nuclear science and technology, advanced grid and bioproducts.

Last year, WSU teamed with PNNL to establish the PNNL-WSU Distinguished Graduate Research Program, through which students work side-by-side with nationally recognized scientists and engineers on their thesis projects. We have a dozen WSU graduate students working at PNNL as part of the first cohort in the program, and the second cohort is on its way. The institutes will build upon this momentum to help educate and train the STEM workforce of the future, as it is critical that next-generation scientists and engineers are fully equipped to tackle the energy challenges that face our state and nation.

While our two institutions are already connected in many ways, the formation of the three institutes will propel our collective impact and provide a platform to demonstrate leadership and expertise. It is important that we help to create and support an ecosystem of industrial, government and university participants who will benefit from the tools, technologies, and discoveries that result from the institutes. By uniting our vision, talent, and resources, WSU and PNNL will do more to deliver transformative outcomes for society.

Serving as an Interim Director for the WSU-PNNL Institute| Bioproducts

Dr. John Holladay of PNNL and I have been appointed as interim co-directors for the WSU-PNNL Institute | Bioproducts. Our goals include developing the organization and scope of the institute, while preparing for the hiring of permanent co-directors in the near future.

Building on past experiences of leading large regional and national consortia for developing biofuels and bioproducts, I am particularly excited about the opportunities presented by this partnership. Through the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory (BSEL), our two institutions already share faculty/scientists, research projects, and a 57,000 square-foot research facility, located on the WSU Tri-Cities campus. The launch of the collaborative institute now provides the opportunity to strategically focus much more intently on growing a preeminent organization for developing products to power the new bioeconomy.

Our new institute will build upon WSU’s leadership in plant sciences and materials science and PNNL’s strong history in chemical conversion, while building on complimentary expertise in sustainability modeling and an establish relationship in conversion technologies. This newly expanded collaboration will build economic development opportunities for Washington state, while providing our students with a unique educational opportunity.

Looking Ahead

These three new Institutes form the basis for a strengthened research collaboration between WSU and PNNL. Looking ahead, we envision expanding the collaboration into areas such as STEM education, as well as community and economic development. The development of a more strategic and extensive collaboration between WSU and PNNL is strongly supported by senior leadership at both institutions. In particular, as discussed by WSU President Kirk Schulz, the WSU-PNNL collaboration is an important element of the Drive to 25.

Learn more about the WSU-PNNL Institutes here.