Basic Research at
ORNL has a time-honored tradition of basic research accomplishments in physics, chemistry, biology, and the materials sciences. In 1951 ORNL researchers were the first to confirm that a neutron decays into a proton, electron, and electron antineutrino. ORNL biologists discovered the function of messenger RNA and the chromosomal basis for sex determination in mammals. This year the Department of Energy recognized three ORNL discoveries as among the top 23 of DOE national laboratories' scientific accomplishments. They are nickel and iron aluminides for high-temperature applications, ion beam techniques for making longer-lasting artificial hips and knees, and the Z-contrast electron microscopy technique, which produced the most detailed image of a crystal structure ever recorded in a microscope.
In December 2000, an ORNL physical chemist, the late Sheldon Datz, received DOE's prestigious Enrico Fermi Award for pioneering the use of crossed molecular beams to study the details of chemical reactions and for demonstrating ion channeling, in which charged atoms pass between a thin crystal's rows of atoms. (See Fermi Award Winner Opened New Fields in Atomic Physics.)
Our basic research tradition continues today, thanks largely to support from DOE's Office of Science. Much of the research, described in this issue, deals in a big way with very small features of matter ranging from quarks, electrons, photons, neutrons, and heavy ions to DNA and carbon nanotubes.
By studying the properties of short-lived nuclei and searching for rare isotopes, using the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility, ORNL nuclear physicists are gaining a better understanding of the origin of the elements and the mechanism of energy generation in stars. ORNL physicists and electronics experts have played a major role in developing electron and photon detectors and electronic components, to help search for evidence that the universe’s beginning has been mimicked in DOE's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.
ORNL is well positioned to become the world's leading center in neutron science with the completion of our upgraded High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) in 2003 and the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in 2006. Using neutron scattering at HFIR and elsewhere, ORNL researchers recently found evidence to support a leading theory for explaining high-temperature superconductivity. Neutron data from another ORNL neutron source, the Oak Ridge Electron Linear Accelerator, is helping computational astrophysicists improve their understanding of nuclear processes by which isotopes are synthesized in stars. The SNS may also be used for this purpose.
|Artist's conception of the proposed Nanophase Materials Science Center.|
The SNS will enable advances in characterizing nanoscale materials, such as triblock copolymers. In other nanoscience efforts at ORNL, we are working toward fabricating nanofluidic lab-on-a-chip devices, conducting experiments with them, and predicting fluid behavior in them, as well. We are devising innovative ways to trick nanoscale bits of matter into assembling themselves into useful products, such as artificial membranes and electronic components. An ORNL team is designing a quantum-dot array that can be operated at room temperature to carry out innovative computations.
As disk drives and transistors are further downsized, today's materials will eventually reach limits in performance. We are addressing these issues through experimentation and computer simulation.
DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences has recommended construction funding in fiscal-year 2003 for a proposed Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at the SNS. If Congress approves, the new center will integrate nanoscience research with our unique combination of capabilities in neutron scattering, synthesis of new materials, and theory and simulation, using supercomputers at DOE's Center for Computational Sciences at ORNL.
Among its many uses, the Lab's IBM supercomputer is being used to simulate a fusion heating and plasma control method involving radio waves, as well as to model a future fusion device that may be built here in a few years. This basic research is essential to developing fusion as a future energy source. To help make fossil fuel, nuclear, and geothermal energy sources more economical for producing power, our geochemists are performing important basic research.
|Ying Xu and Dong Xu, computational biologists at ORNL, received an R&D 100 Award from R&D magazine in 2001 for the product of their basic researcha protein structure prediction tool called PROSPECT.|
In computer science, we perform basic research to enable computational researchers to get better results faster. Recently, an ORNL algorithm was shown to reduce and predict delays in data delivery over the Internet.
In the biological area, ORNL received a 2001 R&D 100 Award for its protein structure prediction tool. ORNL basic research involving mice and their DNA may shed light on why some humans are more susceptible than others to getting cancer after exposure to low doses of radiation or environmental chemicals. Research being conducted at ORNL and the University of Southern California suggests that a spinach protein might someday restore sight to the legally blind.
Basic research has been a pillar of our work. As ORNL gets new facilities this decade for neutron science, computer science, nanoscience, and biology, an even brighter future is in store for fundamental research at the Laboratory.
, Deputy Director for Science and Technology
, Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences