Addressing Our Top Three Scientific Challenges of 2023
Our world is complicated. Which is why, at Battelle, we spend a lot of time anticipating the challenges of the future, while actively solving today’s problems. Here are three areas where we are focused on making the world a better place.
A Cleaner Environment
We all want clean air and water. As we gain greater understanding of how human activity affects our environment, one area of enormous concern revolves around chemicals called per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
For decades, these "forever chemicals" have been used in all sorts of products ranging from non-stick pans to food containers, stain repellent carpeting and water-repellent fabrics. They also are the main ingredient that makes firefighting foams so effective. Because they are so ubiquitous, they have leached into the environment—contaminating water, soil and the plants and animals that make up the food chain.
These substances have been linked to cancer, low birth weights, hormone disruption and more, even at very low levels. Alarmingly, there may be more than 130,000 potential PFAS contamination sites across the country, and more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water, according to an estimate from the Environmental Working Group.
Eradicating these chemicals is now a priority for many communities, but this is no easy task. Current methods have resulted merely in the transfer of the contamination to landfills; or the chemicals have been incinerated, which does not destroy PFAS, but rather spreads the contamination as the chemicals are sent up a smokestack and carried by the wind to adjacent communities. By understanding the complicated way PFAS interacts with the environment, it became clear that the substances must be completely destroyed to prevent them from transferring elsewhere or creating harmful byproducts. Battelle developed the PFAS Annihilator™ which uses supercritical water oxidation. This process shatters the durable molecular bond of PFAS, resulting in their thorough, safe destruction, with no harmful byproducts.
While we will continue our research and development at Battelle to invent new ways to combat the spread of PFAS, in January we formed a new company called Revive Environmental that will speed our ready-now technology to the market.
New Hope for Stroke Victims
Few things in the human body are as complex as the brain and nervous system. Battelle has been researching neurotechnology for two decades and the field is no longer the realm of science fiction. Neurotech is already helping people overcome very real health conditions, disorders and injuries such as depression, Parkinson's disease, and stroke.
Every year, nearly 800,000 people in the United States suffer a stroke, which is one of the leading causes of paralysis. But new understanding of how to decode brain signals, along with advances in medical sensors and data analytics, are unlocking new frontiers in treatment. For example, Battelle’s NeuroLife sleeve has already enabled a paralyzed man to regain movement in his hand. Now, we’re translating that institutional knowledge into ways to help stroke victims regain functions more quickly. Longer term, our neurotech research could allow people to control devices or prosthetics with just their thoughts. A DARPA initiative called Next-gen Nonsurgical Neurotech, or N3, (a program for which Battelle is actively developing several technologies) aims to target specific areas of the brain, allowing for seamless communication between brain and machine without requiring surgery. Combined with ever-growing array of smart devices, these advances could give people living with physical challenges unprecedented freedom and independence.
The Next Generation of Scientists and Engineers
America continues to struggle with a growing shortage of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—talent. Engineers, scientists, and technologists of all stripes are in high demand; every month, hundreds of thousands of such jobs go unfilled. Changing our education system to prioritize development of skills and careers in STEM is crucial to helping the next generation of scientists and engineers prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the future, including new technologies and emerging industries that we can only imagine today.
Moreover, incorporating a STEM curriculum throughout our education system helps all students by teaching critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are useful in any field. It also can help students understand and appreciate the world around them and develop a sense of curiosity and creativity. Yet we as a society struggle to invest in STEM education and increase access for more students to pursue STEM careers.
This is why Battelle set a goal to impact 1 million students each year with STEM outreach and philanthropy by 2025. It’s with great pride that we have already passed that goal, impacting 1.4 million students with high-quality STEM programming last year alone. These efforts are realized through the Ohio STEM Learning Network, the Battelle-administered Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, Battelle’s own philanthropic contributions, and additional outreach through the national laboratories where we have a management and operations role.
The delicate balance of the natural environment, the intricate marvels of the human brain, the critical mission of our nation’s educational structure: All three of these represent complex, diverse, and adaptable systems with many interconnected parts and processes. They also are constantly changing, whether due to human activity, technological advances, or natural development and growth. By taking a holistic, systemic view and applying science, engineering, and technology, we will make progress against these and many other challenges this year and beyond.
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