INEEL requests design proposals for new subsurface geosciences laboratory

June 03, 2001

After months of identifying science needs and technical requirements, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) is requesting architectural design proposals for the planned Subsurface Geosciences Laboratory.

The Subsurface Geosciences Laboratory (SGL) at an estimated total project cost of $140 million to $170 million, will offer unique research capabilities needed to address the Department of Energy's environmental missions. The new facility will enable researchers to advance the fundamental understanding of biological, geological, chemical, and physical processes that affect contaminant behavior in the subsurface. INEEL plans to select the architects for conceptual design in June 2001.

The planned SGL will be an approximately 200,000-square-foot research laboratory in Idaho Falls. SGL will be a "user facility" available to the broad scientific community for research and technology development. The facility will house state-of-the-art analytical laboratory capabilities, a 5.5-meter geocentrifuge, and specialized, large soil tanks for meso-scale experiments to study contaminant movement in heterogeneous rock and sediment samples larger than a cubic meter. Meso-scale experiments are large enough to mimic real-world biological, geological and physical processes in a controlled laboratory setting. The SGL will help researchers to bridge the knowledge gap between very small laboratory scale experiments, and observations from the field.

"For example, accelerating a soil sample in the geocentrifuge to 100 times the force of gravity simulates the passage of one year of fluid flow through the sample in a single hour. That kind of capability will really advance our understanding of fluid flow and contaminant transport," says Robert Smith, Science director for the INEEL Subsurface Science Initiative.

The sheer size of some of the proposed research experiments makes the laboratory design a little unusual. "The dimensions of some of the soil tanks will be 20-60 feet on a side and 10-30 feet deep," said Wayne Ridgway, INEEL project manager for construction of the building. "We have to plan for high bays, and earth and gravel moving equipment that you don't need for laboratory-scale experiments. Some of the research will use intact blocks of basalt and soil taken directly from the field." The facility will also support high-speed computing capabilities and provide much-needed offices for full-time INEEL staff and visiting research collaborators.

INEEL and collaborating scientists and engineers have spent months looking at the science needs, and developing technical and functional requirements, for the proposed laboratory that will form an architect's baseline for a construction design.

"We're targeting world-class laboratory designers--architectural firms that have won awards and recognition specifically for research and development laboratory design of a facility of this size," Ridgway said.

The next step will be to seek successive approvals from DOE and Congress on the conceptual design, final detailed design and then construction. Facility construction could begin as early as 2005, and is scheduled for completion by 2007.

Few places in the world have equipment for conducting meso-scale research, and none have the unique array of equipment proposed for the SGL. "Our scientists are designing crucial experiments needed to better understand the movement of contaminants in the subsurface, but there just isn't an available facility with the right equipment to conduct this kind of large-scale science," says Bill Shipp, INEEL laboratory director. The SGL user-facility will provide the entire scientific community with critical tools needed to make progress in deciphering the complex subsurface.

INEEL intends to leverage the capabilities of the new facility through collaborations with researchers from universities and other DOE national laboratories. "There is just no way that we or any other organization can have all the expertise to solve the many complex problems posed by the movement of contaminants in the subsurface," explains Michael Wright, INEEL Subsurface Science Initiative director. "Strategic alliances and collaborations are vital in leveraging our home capabilities and enhancing the INEEL's value to the DOE and the nation."

The meso-scale facilities offered by the SGL will create new opportunities for discovery that will directly benefit DOE's search for solutions to long-term contamination problems. "Meso-scale research is the logical next step to take," Wright said, "because you just can't take lab-scale measurements and use them in field-scale experiments or computer simulations." That is comparable to studying a desktop aquarium to predict what is happening in the ocean--the data usually doesn't translate in a useful way.

"There will be an immediate impact on our research activities once construction of the SGL is completed," Shipp said. "We will be able to implement well-thought-out experimental campaigns designed by teams of researchers not only from INEEL but from other national laboratories and universities. The answers gained from these campaigns will also provide information needed to support the long-term stewardship of DOE lands and implementation of long term remediation strategies."
The INEEL is a science-based, applied engineering national laboratory dedicated to supporting the U.S. Department of Energy's missions in environment, energy, science and national defense. The INEEL is operated for the DOE by Bechtel BWXT Idaho, LLC, in partnership with the Inland Northwest Research Alliance.

Technical Contact: Michael Wright, 208-526-3315, or, Wayne Ridgway, 208-526-4790, or

Media Contact: Deborah Hill, 208-526-4723, or; Mary Beckman, 208-526-0061, or

Visit our website at

DOE/Idaho National Laboratory is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to