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Invisible Science: Lab Breakthroughs in Our Daily Lives

The Lab Breakthroughs video series focuses on the array of technological advancements and discoveries that stem from research performed in the National Labs.

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Today (Apr. 24) the U.S. Energy Department is launching a Lab Breakthoughs video series, highlighting 16 innovations developed by researchers at the Energy Department’s National Labs. The videos will show how each innovation works, and will be accompanied by a Q&A with the lead researchers that delves into how the specific technology appears in our daily lives.

We often look at a product without giving thought to its origin or development. We live in a world shaped by technological innovations, many of which were developed or improved by researchers at the National Labs, albeit without notice.

Air conditioners, for instance, epitomize invisible technology -- until the energy bill arrives. An AC unit that a team of national lab researchers is developing has the potential to save industry and consumers billions of dollars each year. Certain coal-based power plants optimize their processes with an open-source software developed by computer scientists at the national labs, reducing the use of a valuable non-renewable resource. Other researchers worked directly with industry to develop a soy-based alternative to a widely used petroleum-based product, increasing our energy security and lowering the company’s carbon footprint.

Other researchers are also hoping to save lives. Coming to a doctor near you are instruments developed at the labs that reduce waiting for test results from three days to three minutes. In another lab, researchers use mechanical processes to target specific cells and kill them -- a technique that could one day be used to attack cancer cells.

Other technologies from the labs are hidden in the devices we use every day. Solder, a conductive alloy that’s present on any circuit board, once contained lead, a potentially harmful heavy metal. Fifteen years ago, a metallurgical innovation at a national lab introduced a lead-free alloy to the market with similar properties and at similar cost. Its use is now widespread.

The labs often influence or create these consumer products invisibly, and they have just as many discoveries that are, in fact, invisible to the naked eye. On the smallest scale (in terms of physical science), researchers accelerate single protons to nearly the speed of light and then smash them into one another. From the images produced by advanced sensors and computers, researchers are finding out how the molecular world functions. They are also developing and testing new materials with these instruments. Incredible feats of engineering provided the environment for these controlled reactions to occur. Though to reach their full potential in resolution and power, other researchers are attempting to fine-tune these particle accelerators with new materials and processes.

Whether invisible or merely unnoticed, there are National Lab researchers who feed ideas and patents into industry, improve processes, and unlock the secrets of the universe. They’re easy to overlook, but if you look in the right place, you’ll likely find a lab breakthrough in your daily life.

The Energy Department will feature one to two videos per week on the Lab Breakthroughs page on Or, if you want to see all 16 videos in the series, visit the Lab Breakthroughs playlist on the Energy Department YouTube channel.