Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has been at the forefront of developing strategies and technologies to keep America safe from external threats, targeted specifically at chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threat detection. Our dedication to these efforts has not wavered in the nearly two decades since 9/11 and we remain committed to continuing to push the boundaries of science to ensure our nation remains safe and vigilant in the face of the ever-evolving threat landscape.
Before I tell you about developments in those areas, let me introduce you to PNNL. The laboratory is one of 17 Department of Energy national laboratories stewarded by DOE’s Office of Science. Our research strengthens the nation’s foundation for innovation, and we find solutions for not only DOE, but for the Department of Homeland Security, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Defense, other government agencies, universities, and industry. We have scientific strengths and historic capabilities with roots in the Manhattan Project of the 1940s. Threat detection technology development is a central part of these programs and one in which science plays a particularly critical role. We have more than 5,000 employees and most of them are based at our main campus in Richland, Wash. – our home since 1965.
As associate laboratory director of the National Security Directorate, I oversee the portfolio of national security programs and partnerships at PNNL. The laboratory’s national security-focused employees account for over 1,500 staff members – nearly a third of total PNNL staff. And the National Security mission’s annual research budget accounts for about half of the laboratory’s budget.
The national security portfolio is designed to keep America safe through science-based solutions. PNNL’s national security researchers, tools and technologies help secure U.S. borders and critical infrastructure, combat global terrorism, detect concealed threats and explosives, and develop technologies that help monitor treaties for compliance. Here are some of the ways my NSD colleagues are making that happen.
Helping make air travel safer
Perhaps no innovation better illustrates PNNL’s homeland security capabilities than the whole body scanner utilizing millimeter wave technology. This technology highlights PNNL’s radar imaging and optics capabilities, which use safe, ultra-high frequency radio waves to penetrate clothing and non-metallic barriers to detect and identify concealed weapons, explosives, and contraband. This pioneering research in optical and acoustic holography dates back to when PNNL began in the 1960s when lab researchers pioneered the development of this technology. Millimeter wave technology led to developing Transportation Security Administration security scanners at passenger checkpoints in airports. These scanners – developed at PNNL and licensed in the private sector – have effectively and safely scanned for concealed weapons as well as liquids, gels, plastics, powders, ceramics, and other threats that traditional metal detectors would miss. Whole-body scanning security systems, introduced in 2011, are deployed at airports worldwide. Today, more than 1,300 systems are in place in 250 airports across the country and around the world. And recently, PNNL introduced the latest innovation using millimeter wave technology, an advancement that could eliminate the inconvenient pre-boarding ritual of removing your shoes. This advancement, which was licensed earlier this year to a private company, could provide a three-dimensional image of passengers’ footwear while their shoes remain on their feet – quickly identifying concealed threats.
Improvements continue with the primary airport screening device, advances that may one day allow passengers to walk through security checkpoints without pausing as the imaging system screens them in real time with increased efficiency and effectiveness. Dave Sheen is the technical team leader and engineer who manages the millimeter wave technology program at PNNL. Dave shares that the updated HD-Advanced Imaging Technology scanner offers much higher resolution, while dramatically reducing false alarms compared to the first-generation technology.
“Improvements continue with the primary airport screening device, advances that may one day allow passengers to walk through security checkpoints without pausing”
Protecting U.S. ports of entry
PNNL has led the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to implement a radiation scanning program at the approximately 300 ports of entry at the U.S. northern and southern land borders and all major seaports, as well as in international mail facilities, Express Consignment Courier facilities, and at preclearance sites. Today, nearly 100 percent of all privately and commercially owned cars, trucks, and cargo coming into the U.S. via seaports and land border crossings are scanned for radioactive materials. Under the direction of DHS and in close partnership, PNNL worked expertly and expeditiously to implement radiation scanning at the ports of entry thus establishing a critical layer in the multi-layer defense strategy set forth by the U.S. government shortly after the fateful events of 9/11. Each radiation portal monitor system is capable of generating an alarm when it detects radiation emanating from nuclear devices, dirty bombs, special nuclear materials, and non-compliant isotopes commonly used in medicine and industry. If an alarm occurs, further investigation is conducted to determine whether or not the radiation is a potential terrorist threat, a natural source, or a legitimate medical or industrial source. PNNL began installing these detection systems in 2002 and completed the ambitious nationwide schedule in 2009. Now, with respect to radiation portal monitors, the laboratory plays a critical role in supporting the sustainment of the scanning capability, deploying and reconfiguring equipment to support the ever-evolving radiation scanning mission as well as identifying and integrating new technologies to ease the burden of operations and lessen the impact to legitimate commerce. Additionally, PNNL has been tasked by DHS to provide input to new port and crossing designs; conduct evaluations, testing, and integration of new scanning system components and associated software; perform system calibrations and maintenance; provide input to new system requirements development; develop and demonstrate new system prototypes; and provide independent technical safety and performance measurements.
Identifying and preventing physical attacks
PNNL scientists have developed a technology that can quickly detect explosive vapors, deadly chemicals, and illicit drugs with unparalleled accuracy. VaporID accurately detects and identifies the vapors of even very low-volatility explosives in real time, in extremely small amounts, at ambient temperature, and without sample pre-concentration. The technology identifies explosive compounds, such as C-4, PETN, Semtex, nitroglycerin, tetryl, and TNT, as well as vapors emanating from toxic chemicals similar in structure to nerve agents. Recently, the capability was proven effective at identifying illicit drugs, such as fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine. Rather than searching for particle residue using a typical method like surface swipes or using pulses of air to dislodge particles for analysis, the system ‘sniffs’ directly for explosives vapors, much the way bomb-sniffing canines do. VaporID was named the 2020 Innovation of the Year by GeekWire, the Seattle-based technology news company.
Defending against cyber threats
PNNL is a leader in developing the foundational understanding and technologies for security of our power grid. We take a broad approach to this critical national need – from stewarding operational capabilities like the Cybersecurity Risk Information Sharing Program (CRISP) to developing entirely new technologies that keep our defenses at the forefront. CRISP performs cyber threat detection using data shared by utilities to perform an intelligence-informed analysis that identifies threats that neither utilities alone, nor private cybersecurity firms, can identify. CRISP provides a strong complement to what utilities and private cybersecurity firms provide. The nation’s energy infrastructure, particularly the power grid, has become a major target, with more frequent and sophisticated attacks from nation-states and cyber criminals. Cyber incidents could disrupt energy services, damage highly specialized equipment, and threaten public health and safety. With 90 percent of the nation’s power infrastructure privately held, grid operators and utilities are responsible for protecting their systems from risk. PNNL supports the Department of Energy’s cybersecurity goal of strengthening today’s energy delivery systems and creating more resilient, self-defending energy systems for the future. PNNL has more than 100 technical experts focused on cybersecurity infrastructure research and solutions. They help ensure the reliability and security of the nation’s power system.
As we look ahead, PNNL will continue to evolve and adapt its capabilities to develop and implement strategies and technologies and tools to detect and prevent threats to our nation’s safety and security – even while those threats become more sophisticated, diverse, and discrete. As a multi-purpose national laboratory, we have the ability to draw upon diverse areas of expertise to develop solutions to counter pressing homeland security threats whether those be manmade or natural.
As I reflect on the importance of this anniversary, I’m reminded of the experiences of a colleague, Larry Morgan. Larry is a chemist and project manager who came to work at PNNL at its inception, in 1965. And in October 2002, Larry moved across the country to ultimately help stand up critical elements of the newest department in the federal government: the Department of Homeland Security.
In a recent note to his colleagues, Larry recalled working 16-hour days as DHS became official on March 3, 2003.
“These experiences solidified my view of the role of science in the position within a triangle of national policy, agency programs, and operational needs,” Larry wrote. “The scope of our work quickly expanded after 9/11 as PNNL assessed the capabilities we could offer to various U.S. agencies.”
PNNL’s national security capabilities and scope continue to expand to this day as the mission of the U.S. agencies we support evolves, with a collective singular focus on keeping America safe. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that profoundly impacted us as a nation, we are as motivated as ever to develop threat detection technologies for a safer world. We do so with an abiding respect for science, but also through a deep sense of commitment to our country.
To learn more, visit: https://www.pnnl.gov/projects/911-remembering-20