WSU-PNNL Nuclear Institute appoints renowned chemist as new director

Closeup of James Boncella
James Boncella

Washington State University (WSU) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have appointed James Boncella as the new director of the WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Dr. Boncella to WSU and PNNL,” said Malin Young, PNNL’s deputy laboratory director for science and technology. “We’re fortunate to have someone with his experience in scientific research and strategic nuclear research programs in this leadership role.”

The WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute is a joint research collaboration that seeks to understand and control how materials evolve in radiation environments, prevent the use of illicit nuclear materials, resolve issues in nuclear waste management, and advance next-generation nuclear energy.

I am excited to join the WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute. This is an enormous opportunity to work with scientists from both the national laboratory and the University to make an impact on national security and other areas of nuclear science,” Boncella said.

As director, Boncella will create the research strategy and develop new research programs for the WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute.  The Institute will tackle challenges around nuclear science, including national and international security, education and training in STEM, and support of the WSU Nuclear Science Center and its 1 MW TRIGA research reactor. The Institute also will provide workforce development for WSU graduate students studying nuclear science and PNNL scientists.

“I will focus on cultivating funding opportunities for our researchers and developing new programs. This will require me to understand the current challenges and areas of research needed by the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Defense and other federal agencies, so that I can develop research programs at the Institute that will address issues of national and international importance,” Boncella said.

In addition to leading the institute, Boncella holds an appointment as a professor of chemistry at WSU and a joint appointment at PNNL. The University and PNNL have a long history of collaborating on individual research projects.   The two institutions also provide opportunities for WSU graduate students to conduct their dissertation research at PNNL, and allow for faculty to hold joint appointments, which enables them to lead and conduct research in Pullman and the Tri-Cities.

“WSU and PNNL are both leaders in nuclear science and technology and its applications. Our continued collaboration through the Nuclear Science and Technology Institute enhances our collective capabilities and allows both institutions to better meet their missions. With the addition of James to the Institute, we will continue to grow this partnership and prepare the next generation of scientists to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow,” said Christopher Keane, vice president for research at WSU.

Boncella received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the College of Wooster and his doctoral degree in inorganic chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. After a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford University, he joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Florida where he developed research programs in organometallic chemistry and metal catalyzed polymerization reactions. He was promoted to full professor in 2000.

He moved to Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2003 where his research was focused on organo-actinide chemistry, fuel cell membranes and catalysis, chemical origins of life, and national security applications. He served as deputy group leader of the Inorganic, Isotope, and Actinide Chemistry group. Boncella was elected a Fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2017 and a LANL Fellow in 2018.

The WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute was one of three joint institutes launched in April 2018 to advance science and technology in nuclear science and technology, advanced grid and bioproducts. The three institutes aim to find solutions to scientific challenges that neither partner can address alone or easily. Aurora Clark, professor of chemistry at WSU, previously served as the interim director for the WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute. Neil Henson, scientist in the Disruptive Technology group at PNNL, serves as deputy director for the Institute.

For more information about the WSU-PNNL Nuclear Science and Technology Institute, visit

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