Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

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Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory
Emsl logo home
Established Oct. 1, 1997
Field of research
Biological science, chemical science, environmental science
Director Allison Campbell


Users 10,000+ in 15 years, 700 per year
Patents 79
Instruments 150 plus
Size About 234,000 square feet
Publications Around 350 per year
Address Located on the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus in Richland, Wash.
Website www.emsl.pnnl.gov/emslweb/

EMSL (pronounced em-zul), or the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, is a national scientific user facility located at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. EMSL is funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research. EMSL provides experimental and computational resources to address the environmental molecular science challenges facing DOE and the nation.

EMSL offers the global scientific community a range of capabilities and expertise. Access to EMSL’s capabilities is gained through a peer-reviewed proposal process. If a proposal is accepted and the scientist publishes in the open literature, there typically is no charge for using the EMSL instrumentation and capabilities. EMSL provides proposal opportunities throughout the year.[1]

Since it opened in 1997, scientists from all 50 states and more than 35 countries have used EMSL to support their scientific efforts.


Research at EMSL is focused on gaining an understanding of the physics, chemistry and biology governing environmental processes starting at the molecular scale and propagating to larger scales. EMSL’s research focus has been defined into three science themes.[2]

  • Biological Interactions and Dynamics: Developing a quantitative, systems-level understanding of the dynamic network of proteins and molecules that drive cell responses and how groups of different cells interact to give rise to functional cell communities.
  • Geochemistry/Biogeochemistry and Subsurface Science: Studying molecular scale reaction mechanisms at the mineral-water, microbe-mineral, and fluid-fluid interfaces and understanding the effect of these mechanisms on the fate and transport of contaminants.
  • Science of Interfacial Phenomena: Developing an understanding and gaining control of atomic- and molecular-level structure–function relationships at interfaces that enable the optimization of interfacial properties, such as the control of catalytic activity and selectivity.


EMSL capabilities include:

  • Cell Isolation and Systems Analysis – isolates cells from complex populations or environmental samples for subsequent, integrated 'omics and imaging analyses. EMSL specializes in high-throughput genomics and proteomics studies, and electron and fluorescence microscopy characterization at high spatial and temporal resolutions.
  • Deposition and Microfabrication – unites instruments designed to tailor surfaces atom by atom. From deposition instruments that emphasize oxide films and interfaces to a microfabrication suite, EMSL has equipment to tailor surfaces, as diverse as single-crystal thin films or nanostructures, or create the microenvironments needed for direct experimentation at micron scales.
  • Mass Spectrometry – enables high-throughput, high-resolution analysis of complex mixtures. These resources are applied to scientific problems from proteomics studies to aerosol particle characterization, as well as fundamental studies of ion-surface collisions and preparatory mass spectrometry using ion soft-landing.
  • Microscopy – offers microscopy instruments, including electron microscopes, optical microscopes, scanning probe microscopes and computer-controlled microscopes for automated particle analysis. These tools are used to image sample types with nanoscale – and even atomic – resolution with applications to surface, environmental, biogeochemical, atmospheric and biological science.
  • Molecular Science Computing – provides an integrated production computing environment. Computing resources include:
  1. Cascade Supercomputer – Theoretical peak processing speed of 3.4 petaflops. 1440 compute nodes with conventional Xeon processors plus Intel Xeon Phi "MIC" accelerators. 128 GB memory per compute node. 2.7 petabyte shared parallel filesystem (60 gigabytes per second read/write)
  2. Molecular Science Software Suite – tools that enables scientists to understand chemical systems at the molecular level by coupling the power of computational chemistry techniques with existing massively parallel computing systems. The suite includes including NWChem, ECCE and ParSoft.
  3. Graphics and Visualization Lab – helps researchers visualize and analyze experimental and computational data sets.
  • NMR and EPR – nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, instruments with frequencies up to 900 MHz and an electron paramagnetic resonance, or EPR, spectrometer. EMSL staff members have developed probes and techniques to complement the lab’s collection of magnets.
  • Spectroscopy and Diffraction – allows users to study solid-, liquid- and gas-phase sample structure and composition with remarkable resolution. Ideal for integrated studies, spectrometers and diffractometers are coupled with EMSL's computational and modeling capabilities.
  • Subsurface Flow and Transport – allows the study of chemical reactions in natural materials with an emphasis on soil and subsurface systems. EMSL's approach to subsurface flow and transport studies integrates flow cells, analytical tools, tomographic imaging and predictive modeling capabilities to study subsurface phenomena.

EMSL facilities include a Quiet Wing[3] that opened in early 2012 and a Radiochemistry Annex[4] opening to the global user community in spring 2014.

  • Quiet Wing - EMSL’s Quiet Wing was designed to help accelerate science by allowing microscopy equipment to operate at optimal resolution. The wing’s design eliminates or reduces to a minimum the vibrations, acoustics and electromagnetics that can interfere with the resolution of ultra-sensitive scientific instrumentation. The facility and its collection of microscopy and scanning instruments will benefit research areas that include catalysis, fuel cell/energy storage, subsurface science and health-related biology.
  • Radiochemistry Annex - EMSL’s Radiochemistry Annex offers an expansion of capabilities for analysis of radiological samples. It gives users access to a full suite of instrumentation co-located in one facility that is unique in the United States, and one of just a few such facilities worldwide. The Radiochemistry Annex instrument suite is optimal for the study of contaminated environmental materials, examination of radionuclide speciation and detection of chemical signatures.


EMSL staff and scientific consultants are experts in chemical, physical, biological and computational sciences. They have received numerous awards, been named to society fellowships, have received patents and publish in scientific journals.[5] Since 2009, EMSL staff members have received nearly two dozen awards and honors.[6] In fiscal year 2010, EMSL staff and user research appeared in more than 350 articles, including many in journals, such as Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and Journal of the American Chemical Society.[6]


[6][7] The beginnings (1986–1997)

The idea that would become EMSL began in 1985 with a National Academy of Sciences report entitled Opportunities in Chemistry. The report identified scientific challenges relating to energy and the environment that required fundamental research to achieve a solution. Then director of PNNL William R. Wiley and lab senior managers met to discuss the report and how PNNL could respond to the nation’s scientific challenges that were critically dependent on fundamental advances in chemistry. Their recommendations would become EMSL, a center with advanced instrumentation for the study of molecular-level chemistry.

Wiley envisioned a facility where the research was conducted in an integrated and collaborative manner. “Problems don’t come in small, unique, compartmentalized packages. We must recognize the interrelationships,” said Wiley.

Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, which operates PNNL for the U.S. Department of Energy, approved $8.5 million in funding over four years to establish the facility; develop research programs; and obtain the equipment, facilities, scientists and staff to support these programs.

The DOE authorized PNNL to proceed in October 1993, and PNNL began construction of the facility in July 1994. The facility was dedicated on October 16, 1996, in honor of Wiley, who died three months earlier. Construction was completed in August 1997. Then-DOE Secretary Hazel O'Leary delivered the dedication speech and Wiley’s wife, Gus, cut the ribbon. EMSL opened Oct. 1, 1997, for full operation as DOE’s newest national scientific user facility.

The early years (1997–2001) During its first five years, EMSL operations focused on building capabilities, recruiting scientific leadership and attracting users. The scientific focus then expanded to include biology, particularly the study of naturally occurring microbes for environmental cleanup, alternative energy, and carbon dioxide reduction in the atmosphere – critical challenges addressed by DOE.

EMSL’s early user program focused on single investigator studies – particularly those Wiley championed that crossed disciplinary boundaries – and quickly reached more than 1,000 users per year, representing every state and several foreign countries.

A maturing program (2001–2009) In this period there were two grand challenges. These challenges were team-based, multi-investigator research efforts targeted on two key challenges related to DOE missions:

  • a biogeochemistry question concerning the fundamental interaction between microbes and minerals, and
  • a study addressing the structure and function of proteins in the cell membrane.
Dr. Willam R. Wiley (1931–1996) was a distinguished Battelle scientist and one of the driving forces behind the creation of EMSL. The facility was named in his honor.

EMSL’s management further defined the lab’s research focus by establishing science themes. Started in 2006 as four themes and later focused to three, these Science Themes are:

In January 2007, EMSL celebrated its first permanent expansion: a nearly 4,000-square-foot raised floor within its high-performance computing operations center to accommodate a more powerful supercomputer. In April 2008, EMSL dedicated a new office pod to distinguished user J. Mike White that houses nearly 100 staff and users. At the same time, EMSL management began pursuing plans for a Radiochemistry Annex and a Quiet Wing.

Building for the future (2009 to present)

In 2009, DOE announced a $60 million investment in capabilities for EMSL from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA. EMSL used the funds to upgrade some existing capabilities, as well as developing and deploying totally new systems and capabilities.

At this same time, EMSL directed capital funds toward construction of the $8 million Quiet Wing to house up to eight microscopy instruments. The Quiet Wing opened in early 2012. Additionally, EMSL moved forward with plans for a radiological chemistry capability with a Radiochemistry Annex, slated to open in 2014.

EMSL directors[edit]

  • Thom Dunning — led construction activities, 1994–1997
  • Teresa Fryberger — interim director, 1997–1998
  • Jean Futrell — 1999–2002
  • J.W. Rogers, Jr. — 2002–2004
  • Allison Campbell (current) — interim 2004–2005, 2005–present

External links[edit]


  1. ^ User Access
  2. ^ Science Themes
  3. ^ Quiet Wing
  4. ^ Radiochemistry Annex
  5. ^ About EMSL
  6. ^ a b c 2011 Science and Operational Review of the Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory
  7. ^ capabilities

Coordinates: 46°20′55″N 119°16′42″W / 46.34861°N 119.27833°W / 46.34861; -119.27833