Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland is poised to grow thanks to a massive infusion of federal money for semiconductors, an initiative pushed by Sen. Maria Cantwell.
Last week Cantwell, D-Wash., stood beside President Joe Biden and gave a thumbs up as he signed the CHIPS & Science Act into law. The bill authorizes more than $250 billion subsidizing domestic semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research, including money to build the U.S. supply chain for semiconductors.
The bill is intended to turn around U.S. chip manufacturing, expanding the supply chain for every machine and device that uses semiconductors, including cars, trucks, computers, phones and farm equipment.
Particularly important to the Tri-Cities, the bill also focuses on scientific research for “the level of innovation that is going to happen with the next generation of chips and how the United States leads in the design and manufacturing of … chip innovation,” Cantwell said.
“Innovation today equals jobs tomorrow,” she told the Tri-City Herald in advance of a Thursday visit to PNNL with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
Federal research and development has declined from 0.14% of gross domestic product in 1978 to just 0.04% in 2019, according to information provided by her staff. Now, 13 other countries invest more in energy research and development as a share of their economies than the United States.
In the CHIPS bill, $17 billion is set aside for Department of Energy national laboratories like Richland’s to develop key technologies.
“The bill is an important commitment to the kind of technological innovation that is key to our national competitiveness and security — the kind of innovation for which Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is known,” said Steven Ashby, director of PNNL.
Cantwell fought to carve out spending that would go specifically to Department of Energy national laboratories, knowing that they can translate microelectronics and computing research and development into partnerships with industry for advanced product development.
“I just think our national lab can have a lot to say about what is a distinguishing factor between us and other countries in what kinds of new materials, new packaging, new efficiencies, new capabilities might get put into chip fabrication,” Cantwell said.
PNNL will have to compete for grant money, but it is well positioned in numerous areas, starting with applied materials science for research to achieve the next level of efficiency that can be obtained in chips, she said.
There are also intersections with research that the lab already does.
“PNNL scientists and researchers are developing the technologies we need to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Cantwell said. “This investment will supercharge their important work, and bolster the lab’s $1.6 billion contribution to the Washington state economy.”
PNNL could potentially expand existing programs in Richland designed to accelerate innovation in energy storage technologies both for electric-powered transportation and also for the electric grid. The investments in biotechnology infrastructure and research could leverage PNNL’s capabilities to understand and manipulate microbial functions for new medicines, fuels and chemicals.
The Tri-City Development Council credited Cantwell with championing the bill, which it said will be “extremely beneficial for PNNL and other national laboratories.”
PNNL already is the largest single employer in the Tri-Cities and one of the largest employers east of the Cascades.
In 2020, it conducted $1.1 billion in scientific research, generated 7,580 jobs through operations in the state and directly employed 5,350 scientists, engineers and support professionals.
“The Tri-City economy will be increasingly driven by energy sector innovation, and the support for PNNL that this bill provides will be critical to that continued economic growth,” said David Reeploeg, Tri-Cities Development Council vice president for federal programs.