As ORNL's Deputy Director for Science and Technology, Jim Roberto says that his professional goal has always been to find a place where he can contribute most effectively.
Roberto joined ORNL in 1974 after earning a B.S. in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in applied physics from Cornell University. His research interests have included X-ray and neutron scattering, ion-surface interactions, materials for fusion reactors, and nanoscale science and technology. Formerly the Associate Laboratory Director for the Physical Sciences, Roberto was appointed to his current position in 2004. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a recipient of the 2004 National Materials Advancement Award from the Federation of Materials Research Societies.
Q: During the transition in early 2000 from Lockheed-Martin to UT-Battelle, what was happening with the Center for Nanophase Materials Science?
At about the time of the contract change, the Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Sciences commissioned a national study, led by ORNL Corporate Fellow Doug Lowndes and involving a number of laboratories and universities, to look into nanoscale science research. One recommendation of the study was that DOE establish nanomaterials research centers and co-locate them with DOE's major synchrotron and neutron facilities. This recommendation helped precipitate a call for proposals for what are now the DOE nanoscale science research centers. ORNL was one of five laboratories that responded to the call, one of three chosen for the second round of the competition, and the first approved for construction. DOE was subsequently able to get funding for all five facilities, and they are currently in various stages of development. Our facility has been completed, and equipment is being installed. Operations will begin in October 2005.
Q: What have been your biggest contributions and your biggest challenges in shaping the Lab's research agenda?
ORNL is the nation's leading materials laboratory. One of my goals has been to further strengthen materials research and leverage this strength to advance the broader missions of the Laboratory. Nanoscience offers the organizing principle. Nanoscale science and technology will revolutionize almost everything we do from basic research to energy and national security. We focused on developing the best tools for nanoscale research—the nanoscience center and the world's best neutron sources, computers, and electron microscopes—and strengthening the related research programs. We formed partnerships with the University of Tennessee and other universities to further strengthen our science and recruiting. And we encouraged integration across the disciplines based on a shared understanding that progress will occur at the nanoscale. For example, chemistry at the molecular scale is directly connected to biology, materials, computing, national security, and many energy and environmental technologies. We have a wonderful opportunity to strengthen chemistry as a result of this integration. The most powerful tool for determining nanoscale structure and dynamics is neutron scattering, and the Spallation Neutron Source and upgraded High Flux Isotope Reactor will uniquely strengthen materials, biology, chemistry and many other programs. Biology is perhaps the most complex nanoscale science, and our multidisciplinary capabilities in nanoscale research offer truly revolutionary possibilities. Building on the efforts of many people and our traditional strengths in materials and other disciplines, we have positioned the Laboratory for leadership in the 21st century. While my role in this has been modest, the outcome has been quite astounding.
Q: Where does the SNS-HFIR package position ORNL in the neutron-scattering world?
ORNL will undoubtedly have the world's best capabilities for neutron scattering. We've been visited by international review committees that have acknowledged this. SNS will provide the world's best pulsed neutron scattering facilities by a factor of ten, and the upgraded HFIR will provide unsurpassed capabilities for experiments that are best performed using a steady-state source. The Europeans have an interest in building a pulsed source, and the Japanese are building one. But SNS has its own upgrade path, and we believe we will stay ahead of the curve.
Q: Where do you think nanotechnology and our energy problem will meet?
The major areas are materials design and catalysis, where you try to control nanoscale structure and chemistry to get the properties you want for energy applications, and genomics, where you try to control biological systems and processes to the same end. The big impacts will be in materials for extreme environments, functional materials for photovoltaics and fuel cells, lightweight materials for transportation, catalysts for energy conversion and process efficiency, and new approaches to biomass and microbial and photochemical energy processes. These are fundamental challenges to advances in energy, and progress in all of these areas depends on the ability to understand and control complex assemblies of atoms and molecules at the nanoscale.
Q: What is ORNL's role in addressing the social and ethical concerns that accompany the production of nanoparticles?
We have a significant role. First, we must ensure that our research is done safely. A lot of effort has been devoted to designing the nanoscience center so that our staff and users will not be exposed to potentially dangerous substances. We have created a state-of-the-art work environment that is safe and environmentally benign. Second, the National Nanotechnology Initiative requires that a portion of the federal investment in nanoscale science and technology be devoted to examining societal, environmental, and health effects. We are studying some of these effects at ORNL. The problem is complex, because nanoscale particles can take many forms in various applications.
Q: You've watched the Lab's research focus shift over the past three decades. What do you think the Lab's signature research capabilities will be over the next 5, 10, 20 years?
ORNL has a strong tradition in science and technology, but this is by far the most exciting time in my tenure at the Laboratory. We are DOE's largest science, energy and materials laboratory. We have developed new opportunities in neutron science, nanoscience and computational science. We have the base and facilities for international leadership across a broad spectrum of science and technology. Delivering on this unprecedented potential for the Laboratory is our biggest challenge and opportunity. We begin from a very strong position, but the proof will be when the truly pioneering experiments come out of SNS, when our computing revolutionizes the study of complex systems, and when our nanoscience produces breakthroughs across science and technology. This will keep us busy for a while.
Q: What is next?
Many believe that computing will eventually become a third branch of science. Experimental research will always be important, but as we go to more complex systems, the range of experiments required to explore them is just not practical. We will have to use computers to guide our experimental work in the most productive directions. To do that, we must be leaders in simulation science, and that will require significantly greater computing capability than we have now. We will maintain our leadership in neutron science by doubling the performance of the SNS twice, first by upgrading the facility's power and then by adding a second target station. At the nanoscale, a lot of biology is physics and chemistry. By combining our physical sciences strengths with our biology expertise, we can make a unique contribution to biology and develop a next-generation genomics facility. And by integrating across our disciplines, we can develop technologies and facilities that address the global energy problem, perhaps the most significant challenge of our time. We stand on the verge of a scientific and technological revolution based on our ability to characterize, manipulate, and understand materials and biological systems at the nanoscale. We are very fortunate to be at this Laboratory at this time with the capabilities we have created.—Eva Millwood
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