Scientists in the Russian Federation who spent years researching and building biological weapons are now applying their knowledge to develop a promising cleanup solution for sites polluted with oil.
This project to develop oil-eating microbes has captured the interest of a U.S. industry partner and is just one example of how the U.S. Department of Energy's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) is facilitating the creation of stable, nondefense jobs for former weapons designers and scientists.
The IPP is a collaborative program among DOE's national laboratories; institutes and facilities that formerly produced weapons of mass destruction in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine; and U.S. industry. "The program is designed to convert the jobs, infrastructure and human resources of former weapons complexes into new products and business opportunities," said Patricia Godoy-Kain, who manages activities at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that are part of the IPP program.
"Finding a way to help people with expertise in developing weapons use their knowledge and skills to create innovative new products results in a real win-win situation," she said. "Their economy benefits from new commercial opportunities, businesses gain access to new and improved products and weapons experts who would otherwise be out of work are finding scientifically challenging opportunities—decreasing the chance they would be forced to sell their expertise to rogue nations due to lack of income."
When the IPP was started, it was focused on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology. It has since grown to prevent the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons as well. Pacific Northwest is the technical lead for all biological and chemical projects within the program.
"We evaluate project proposals, validate that qualified scientists are participating on the projects and ensure that all proposals meet the format and content requirements of the IPP program for potential commercialization," Godoy-Kain said.
In total, the IPP program has engaged more than 4,400 former weapons scientists and technicians since it was introduced in 1994. DOE has provided the program with $114 million in funding and financed more than 400 projects.
Doing some dirty work
In the oil cleanup project, Russian scientists identified five strains of useful microbes. In collaboration with Pacific Northwest and an industry partner, they are now trying to determine the optimum combination and concentrations for destroying oil in contaminated water and soil under specific conditions.
The technology was successfully field tested in Russia and will be tested further in the United States within the next year. Pacific Northwest helped locate an industry partner in the United States that is interested in applying the microbes at different types of sites where oil contamination is found.
Pacific Northwest, JSC Biochimmash and a U.S. industry partner are demonstrating SYMBIOT—a plant growth stimulator developed through the IPP program. SYMBIOT increases seed germination, tilling and seed production for perennial seed crops.
Weapons for pesky pests
A research project involving Pacific Northwest and industry partners is focused on identifying insect-specific anti-metabolites so that peptides from insects can be used to control agricultural pests.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.