Technology Development & Science-Based Solutions

by Rachel Bartholomew & Richard Ozanich

Science-based research is useful in analyzing and reducing risks through the development of new technologies for detecting, sampling, and studying various contaminants and unknown substances. Teams of scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory play a large role in ensuring that first responders have the necessary tools to perform their critical tasks.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is involved in many research activities related to domestic preparedness, emergency response, and recovery from manmade or natural adverse events. The laboratory’s scientists and engineers focus on delivering practical, science-based solutions to important problems. One of PNNL’s major strengths is the ability to integrate research across various disciplines at the laboratory and bring them to the market, where first responders and emergency managers can put them to work.

A few examples illustrating PNNL’s diverse work in preparedness, response, and recovery are detailed below. These examples range from developing risk analysis and reduction tools and visual sampling plans for the support of confident decision-making during events, to innovative approaches to improving chemical and biological sample screening and detection, such as the development of smartphone microscopes for biological detection and ultra-trace explosives vapor detection systems.

Risk Analysis & Reduction Tools In the field of operations research (OR), sometimes called “the Science of Better,” scientists employ techniques like mathematical programming, event simulation, and decision science to tackle some of the complex challenges facing the world. PNNL’s OR team is staffed with world leaders in relevant technical fields and works closely with sponsors and other stakeholders to present concrete, usable solutions, as well as the analysis needed to influence policy decisions across the national-security and emergency-response spectrum.

For example, working with law enforcement and the emergency management community, PNNL has developed a Risk Reduction and Resource Assessment Model (3RAM) for the Washington State Ferries system. This tool automatically determines the best deployment of security measures and limited tactical security assets using an adaptive, risk-based approach. 3RAM has been used to counter the threat of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in various operational environments since 2011. PNNL has also developed and is currently incorporating active-shooter and other threats into 3RAM’s capabilities.

PNNL has also developed the cutting-edge Physical and Cyber Risk Analysis Tool (PACRAT) software to analyze vulnerability and risk. This software tool blends assessment processes used in both physical and cyber security domains to provide a comprehensive evaluation of a proposed security strategy, taking into account interactions and interdependencies between cyber and physical systems.

Additionally, in work for the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, PNNL has developed and deployed the Radiological and Nuclear Risk Assessment Methods (RNRAM), an integrated terrorist risk assessment tool that helps decision makers craft optimal detection-system and law-enforcement strategies within the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture. The RNRAM models radiological and nuclear threats and helps analysts assess them. RNRAM can also assist in determining the effectiveness of nuclear detection systems and concepts of operations to counter these threats. Because of its flexible structure, this tool can be adapted for application to other threat spaces by other agencies.

Visual Sample Plan (VSP) If a large outdoor area or building were to become contaminated with harmful material, samples would have to be collected and analyzed to assess the extent of contamination right after the event, as well as to monitor the effectiveness of cleanup after decontamination. However, selecting the optimal sample collection locations to support response decisions is a challenge. PNNL’s VSP is a freely available statistical sampling design software tool that couples site, building, and sample location visualization capabilities with optimal sampling design and statistical analysis strategies. VSP helps ensure that the right type, quality, and quantity of data are gathered to support confident decisions and to provide statistical evaluations of the data with decision recommendations.

VSP was developed with support from the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United Kingdom, and has more than 5,000 users worldwide. The tool has been used to support sampling in contexts such as environmental remediation, soil characterization, groundwater monitoring, unexploded ordnance sites, and facility decommissioning.

The underlying statistical methodology used by VSP allows real-time evaluation of the tradeoffs between increased confidence in decisions and costs or number of samples required. Designed for the nonstatistician, VSP uses plain language and a user-friendly interface to elicit inputs for the underlying statistical methods. All equations used and assumptions made are documented in an automatically generated report along with maps, plots, and diagnostic graphics.

Site maps and building plans can be drawn or imported into VSP and used toentify and visualize where samples should be located. Map background imagery and 3D visualization of buildings and furniture models provide an intuitive view of sampling across a site or facility. VSP helps users obtain answers to the following questions:

  • How many samples do I need?

  • Where should I take samples?

  • What decisions do my data support?

  • How confident am I in those decisions?

Smartphone Microscope Janine Hutchison and Rebecca Erikson at PNNL have led the development of a smartphone microscope (SPM) for analysis of both biological samples and unknown powders. Because smartphones are robust, everywhere, and easy-to-use, they provide aneal platform for tools to differentiate potential biothreats like Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) from commonly encountered hoax powders. A 3D-printed clip holds a spherical lens that quickly slides over the camera of a smartphone, providing 350× magnification at a cost of a few cents. At this magnification, objects 1/50th the diameter of a human hair are readily observable. Further features under development include improved image resolution and automated image analysis to meet the needs of end users. Commercial smartphone camera applications allow easy control of focus, exposure time, and other camera settings. The SPM platform iseal for rapidly transmitting images and data out of a “hot” zone to reach decision makers or to obtain technical support from a subject matter expert.

Beyond microscopy and imaging, the SPM can also incorporate field chemical and biological detection and analysis capabilities using low-cost optical filters and advanced fluorescence and energy-absorbance technologies. These user-friendly advances open opportunities to replace cumbersome and costly optical readers currently used in the field.

Ultra-Sensitive Explosives Vapor Detection Robert Ewing and his team at PNNL have developed a new approach to explosives vapor detection that is thousands of times more sensitive than current technology and provides results in less than 5 seconds. For the first time, real-time detection of parts-per-quadrillion levels of explosive vapors is possible without preconcentration. This technique provides a noncontact method for detecting explosives that is less invasive and covers a larger sampling area compared to contact swipe-sampling techniques.

Vapors of explosive compounds such as RDX and PETN are at low parts-per-trillion levels at room temperature. Because of dilution of vapors in the environment, detection levels below parts-per-trillion are required. To achieve parts-per-quadrillion sensitivity, PNNL developed an atmospheric flow tube-mass spectrometer (AFT-MS). This instrument provides unprecedented sensitivity in detecting a broad range of explosives including nitroglycerine, RDX, PETN, tetryl, and various formulations such as plastic explosives, blasting gels, and several types of gunpowder. Using a simple preconcentration device, the AFT-MS could perform ultra-trace detection (sub-parts-per-quadrillion) to detect RDX vapor within a cargo container in less than 5 minutes.

Interdisciplinary teams at PNNL 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 about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic physical science research in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation today.


For additional information on:

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, visit

Physical and Cyber Risk Analysis Tool (PACRAT), view

Visual Sample Plan (VSP), visit

Smartphone microscope (SPM), visit



Rachel A. Bartholomew (pictured), Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and has over 15 years of experience in molecular biology, including developing and testing systems for environmental biodetection, cell culture and diagnostics, and national security applications. She has publications in the area of biodetection, cell culture, and molecular biology, including an upcoming chapter on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in the American Society of Microbiology’s publication “Methods in Environmental Microbiology” (4th edition).  She received an undergraduate degree in biology from Case Western Reserve University and a Ph.D. in physiology from Cornell University. 

Richard M. Ozanich, Ph.D., has worked in the biodetection field for over 20 years. He is a subject matter expert in biodetection and optical spectroscopy and has a broad base of knowledge in the fields of chemistry, biology, and measurement instrumentation. He is currently working on evaluation and testing of biothreat detection instruments and assays to improve the selection and use of field biodetection equipment for first responders. His research includes development of automated fluidics instrumentation and microparticle-based methods for sample preparation and rapid detection of biothreats. He is active in the area of bioresponse and development of standards and best practices and is a member of ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) Committee E54 on Homeland Security Applications. He received a B.S. degree in chemistry from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington.

Significant contribution to this article was made by Cynthia J. Bruckner-Lea, Ph.D., who is a senior scientist and program manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. She is a recognized biodetection expert with over 30 years of experience in the development and application of biological detection systems for environmental monitoring, medical, and national security applications. She is an American Association for the Advancement of Science Engineering Section Fellow, and she has served on several National Academy of Science Committees conducting studies related to chemical and biological detection. She has over 50 publications and 10 patents. She received a B.S. degree in chemical engineering from the University of California, Davis, and a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Utah.