Scientists Make Art From Objects Invisible to the Naked Eye

Sophisticated microscopes, satellites and other instruments can create stunning images in experts’ hands

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The beauty of this mutant strain of the fungus Trichoderma reesei belies the organism’s potential for dismantling biomass. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The micro-world echoes the human-scale world in strange ways. In a microscope image, purple orbs cluster at the end of a stem like ripe grapes. Yet this "fruit" is actually a tiny fungus. Three of the orbs stacked side-by-side would fit inside the diameter of a human hair. Another image looks like it depicts the blue grottos, crevasses and columns of an underwater cave, but actually shows the structures inside a tiny crack through a tungsten-copper alloy.

Both are part of a traveling exhibition showcasing the art that arises out of scientific research at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Washington. The dozen images in the exhibit represent work on nuclear energy, carbon sequestration, battery development, fisheries biology and more.

"I always really like science as art because it lets you show something in a way that is more universally relatable," says Nicole Overman, a materials engineer who captured the tungsten-copper alloy's close-up. "You don't have to have a technical background to be interested."

The power of an image to make a viewer lean closer and wonder is well recognized at the lab. Since 2010, research groups from all over the PNNL have selected, colored and submitted images related to their work to an annual "Science as Art" contest. The tradition began as an effort to update older photos of buildings and scientists in lab coats used for display around campus with something more interesting, explains John LaFemina, the lab’s director of planning and performance.

After that first contest, "we had all these images that were too interesting and too beautiful to hide in a drawer somewhere," LaFemina says. Now, every year he gathers a group of people to pour over approximately 100 to 150 submissions and choose a few that represent the lab's many facilities, projects and sponsors. (The DOE provides most of the lab's funding, but other federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense also contribute.)

"But ultimately, they have got to be beautiful images," LaFemina says.

The winning dozen take their places in an annual calendar the lab offers in print and digital. Every few years, some of the best of the best join a traveling exhibition. This year's exhibition of 12 large-scale (36-by-48-inch) prints are currently hanging in the Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia. Next, they will visit the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

Copper In the Gap Holding Strong

The challenge is to make tungsten—a tough metal—even tougher, for heavy-duty applications. Researchers at PNNL have been exploring the question, trying to gain a better understanding of the properties that emerge when tungsten is united with copper in a model composite. In the image, which reflects this union of metals, the small connecting object is copper, between two sections of tungsten. Researchers believe that in tungsten-copper composites, copper takes on the role of helping to hold tungsten together, reduce cracking, and subsequently make the composite material tougher. PNNL’s research has been funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, which is advancing research in support of international efforts to develop fusion reactors for production of clean energy.

A Subsurface Search for Terrestrial Solutions

Researchers are exploring permanent safe storage of harmful greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), deep underground. The work has unearthed a key finding: the reaction between the mineral forsterite (green object in image) and CO2 results in a different mineral, siderite (orange and blue). Siderite effectively captures the CO2 in place, in a solid stable form. The discovery could help enable storage strategies that protect the climate and environment. This image was captured with a helium ion microscope at EMSL and colorized by Bruce Arey.

Ferocious Fungi For Biomass Conversion

The beauty of this mutant strain of the fungus Trichoderma reesei belies the organism’s potential for dismantling biomass. The study and characterization of the fungus—particularly its proficient production of biomass-degrading enzymes—are critical for the development of more efficient and economical methods for turning biomass into fuels and other products. Scientists from the University of Nebraska and the University of Maryland have been identifying and characterizing T. reesei’s enzyme secretion control pathways. The image was captured with a helium ion microscope at EMSL and colorized by Nathan Johnson of PNNL’s Communications and Information Technology Directorate.

A Signature Approach to Security

This beautiful feather-like image of uranium is a short-lived snapshot in time, but the information it contributes to the field of nuclear forensics could provide important, long-lasting outcomes for world safety. Scientists at PNNL are examining and imaging uranium phases, or transformations in the radioactive metal that occur due to changes in external factors, such as humidity levels. Through this study, researchers are gaining understanding of how the transformations reflect signatures, or characteristics about the material’s history. The knowledge will help enhance capabilities for safeguarding nuclear materials. The image was captured with polarized light microscopy at PNNL’s Radiochemical Processing Laboratory.

A Super Storage Strategy

This material, fashioned from carbon nanotubes (grainy objects) and zinc oxide nanowires (fuzzy objects), could sharpen the potential of electrodes and help forge progress on much-needed energy storage technologies. Results ultimately could benefit transportation, electronic products and grid management. The image was captured with a helium ion microscope at EMSL and colorized by Shuttha Shutthanandan.

Bacteria, Biothreats and Security

Hundreds of growing Bacillus anthracis Sterne spores under a fluorescent microscope create a glittering depiction of scientific inquiry. More importantly, the bacteria offer a safer way to study anthrax disease. Bacillus anthracis, similar to the strain that causes anthrax, is a surrogate, not harmful, and is helping researchers at PNNL to enhance biological threat detection strategies. PNNL’s study of the bacteria provides new knowledge that could lead to the development of a technology that takes advantage of a simple smartphone microscope to rapidly detect and identify biothreats. Such a small, convenient device would provide a new resource to first responders who must rapidly assess dangerous situations and make decisions.

Energy Storage At the Plate

The study of these zinc oxide plates and how the plates nucleate and grow as secondary structures on zinc oxide surfaces contributes toward America’s goal of a clean, abundant and secure energy future. Researchers are enhancing fundamental understanding of nucleation sites and growth characteristics. This is a vital step in making zinc oxide a more effective material for use in the development of high-energy storage systems, such as lithium-air and zinc-air batteries. The image was captured with a Helios 600 dual-beam focused ion beam/scanning electron microscope at EMSL and was colorized by Nathan Johnson of PNNL’s Communications and Information Technology Directorate.

Fungi Enlisted In Global Clean Energy Quest

The fungus Trichoderma reesei, shown here growing on finely-ground pieces of discarded corn stover (stalks, leaves and cobs), could foster rapid conversion of biomass to fuels. The fungus is known for its profuse production of biomass-degrading enzymes, which enhance the conversion process. Researchers have studied the genomes of Trichoderma reesei and other fungi, seeking to better understand enzyme production, and how enzymes might achieve biofuel breakthroughs. The image was captured with a helium ion microscope at EMSL and colorized by Nathan Johnson.

Getting Into the Zone

A magnified view of a microbe on Arabidopsis plant roots seemingly provides a “window” into the rhizosphere, or root zone. In fact, that’s exactly what a multi-institute research campaign is trying to frame—a view into the world of soil, roots and microorganisms. The image was captured with a Helios Nanolab dual-beam focused ion beam/scanning electron microscope at EMSL and colorized by Alice Dohnalkova.

Scale of Change in the North Pacific

Herring scales may help explain how fish populations in the North Pacific Ocean have been impacted by major biological and physical changes during the past 40 years. This image, captured with a helium ion microscope following laser ablation, reveals the collagen matrix within a single scale of a Pacific herring from Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Researchers want to understand carbon isotope ratios in scales—and muscles—of present-day Pacific herrings, with the ultimate objective of performing a retrospective analysis of archived scales. Such a comparative exam will provide insights into fish dynamics in the North Pacific since 1970.

Solutions Rooted in Knowledge

An intricately structured soil bacterium, less than a micron in size, makes its home on the root surface of an Arabidopsis plant. Much remains to be learned about the plant root zone—or rhizosphere—and its microbial communities and influence on environmental processes. The image was captured with the Helios Nanolab dual-beam focused ion beam/scanning electron microscope at EMSL and was created by Alice Dohnalkova.

The Colors of Calamity

The vivid trajectory of rainbow colors extending from lower left to upper right actually represents an unpleasant reality—the swath of destruction caused by an Alabama tornado in the spring of 2011. Researchers at PNNL, in a project funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, used spatial modeling software and satellite imagery to create this two-dimensional interpolation of damage inflicted upon the region. The variations in color reflect different levels of damage in the path, with red indicating areas of greater destruction. The striping pattern outside the path represents data voids. The project is part of an ongoing DHS effort to apply remote sensing techniques to damage assessment. During natural disasters, such a capability could help pinpoint the extent of damage and locations affected, which informs disaster response.

"I want [viewers] to be a little awed and a little inspired. The images should evoke an emotional response, the way great art does," LaFemina says. "But then when they read the captions, they also appreciate that these are stunning scientific images that represent work on important national problems."

Overman's blue, cave-like image comes from a project to engineer tougher, more resilient materials that could be used in nuclear fusion reactors. Such reactors are still very much in the development stage but experts hope they could provide abundant, sustainable energy. Tungsten's high melting point makes it a great candidate for containing fusion reactors' fuel—super-hot plasma like that found inside stars.

However, tungsten is also very brittle. "If it were to fail, it would fail catastrophically all over and all at once," Overman says. To understand how that happens, the team uses a scanning electron microscope that can peer down to the micro- and even nano-scale. "It's kind of like forensics on a really small scale," she says. She looks for clues as to where the failure started and where the cracks through the material go. "Once you know how it is cracking, you can figure out how to divert it or slow it down and give people more time in a real-world situation."

By adding flexible copper to the tungsten, the research group is trying to create an alloy that holds together better. The copper acts as tiny bridges: In her image, the pillar in the center is one of those bridges.

Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) is the technology behind many of the images in the lab's calendars and exhibits. Instead of bouncing light off a sample, the way light microscopes do, a scanning electron microscope focuses a beam of electrons on the surface to reveal the topography and the composition of a sample.

Bruce Arey, an analytical electron microscopist, is an expert on SEM. Now, he does research on national security issues at the lab, but prior to that he spent a dozen years working at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a PNNL facility that offers its experts and instruments to help researchers around the world. "We get involved in everything from material science issues to biological sciences where we see bacteria and fungi to geological sciences," he says. "We take a lot of images."

Most images are to understand the science, but occasionally Arey would see something striking. He'd take the time to reorient the sample and snap a more "spectacular image," he explains. The grape-like fungi was one such image, but another step was needed to enhance its viniferous qualities.

SEM images are only in grayscale, so for the covers of scientific journals and for art exhibits, researchers like to add some color. Arey chose the purple to make the grape resemblance more obvious and intriguing. "Just adding a little color can help people understand what they are looking at or attract them to read the captions" he says. While the fungi isn’t purple in real life, some of Arey’s color choices do reflect reality. The orange in an image he captured of a mineral that may be created during carbon storage would be orange if one could see it. However the purple-blue he added to the same shot was from his imagination.

"This [colorization] is the art part," says Alice Dohnalkova, who uses electron microscopy in her work investigating soil bacteria, fungi and their symbiotic relationships with plant roots. Investigating how the microbes make minerals and other nutrients available to the plants and how this changes depending on weathering and soil chemistry can provide insights for agricultural productivity and even how the planet's soil may respond to climate change.

Some bacteria are easy to color because they contain chlorophyll, making them green. But most bacteria she works with are more of a beige color. "Then, it is up to you to choose. My aesthetic is not primary colors—more like nicely coordinated shades of earth tones. But there is no rule."

Even Dohnalkova strays from her own stated preference. One of the images she colored shows a tiny soil bacterium suspended in a diamond-shaped space between plant roots. The golden-colored roots are earthy, but the bacterium itself is a purple-violet.

She laughs when asked about it.

"Scientists love beautiful things as much as people in other professions," she says.

The “Science as Art” exhibit is at the Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia until March 3. From March 6 to April 8 it will be at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. Images from this and previous years’ calendars can be perused on the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Flickr page.