Assisting industry helps both the Laboratory and U.S. competitiveness.
The Department of Energy's national laboratories contain some of the world's most advanced technologies. In recent years, DOE's mission has placed a renewed focus on supporting America's economic competitiveness by making these technologies more accessible to industry. Oak Ridge National Laboratory's strategy in pursuit of this mission has two distinct components. One strives to identify and promote technologies that can form the basis of new companies. The second, and equally valuable, activity, uses the Laboratory's vast capabilities to solve technological problems and offer new opportunities for existing industry.
By assisting industry, ORNL also helps itself. Dozens of companies have sponsored important research at ORNL, resulting in new scientific discoveries and inventions. ORNL researchers also have published scientific papers and received patents and awards as a result of their work supported by industry. Industry, in turn, has transformed some of these new ORNL-developed technologies into commercial processes and products that are marketed for a profit. UT-Battelle, which manages ORNL for the Department of Energy, licenses these patented technologies to industry in exchange for licensing fees and royalties, which represent a percentage of companies' sales.
The scope of industrial partnerships is impressive. ORNL will help industry become more energy efficient through the incorporation of wireless sensors and high-temperature superconductors. ORNL and computer manufacturers are developing the world's most powerful supercomputer for open scientific research. In one of the most significant endeavors, Laboratory researchers are helping lay the groundwork for the emerging fuel cell industry.
Fuel cells are viewed by many as the power sources of the future because of their ability to generate pollution-free, climate-friendly electricity for buildings and vehicles. Barriers to widespread use of fuel cells have been high manufacturing costs and performance issues related to materials used to make the device.
Under a work-for-others agreement, ORNL researchers led by Tim Armstrong and Rod Judkins are conducting research for Worldwide Energy, Inc., that may help topple the barriers. "We have developed a porous-metal-supported solid oxide fuel cell, an electricity-generating device based on ORNL's inorganic membrane technology," Armstrong says. "Solid oxide fuel cells operate at high temperature and achieve high fuel efficiency. Thus, they are ideally suited for stationary distributed power generation for commercial and military uses.
"The fuel-cell element consists of a tubular metallic support structure with interior layers of a conventional nickel-yttria-stabilized zirconia anode, an yttria-stabilized zirconia electrolyte, and a selection of possible cathodes. The novel design enables these fuel-cell elements to be manufactured at significantly lower costs than conventional flat-plate or planar designs. The robust structure of the porous-metal-supported SOFC element ensures long performance life.
Solid oxide fuel cells produce electricity through electro-chemical reactions involving fuel, such as methane or hydrogen, at the anode and oxygen at the cathode. Because the ORNL—Worldwide Energy device can be operated at high temperature, the fuel cell can be integrated into a number of combined heat and power applications with overall efficiency in excess of 80 percent. A hybrid configuration in which electrochemical cycles are combined with Brayton-cycle turbine technology to convert at least 60 percent of the fuel's chemical energy into electricity is also possible.
Several of the concept's innovative features made possible by ORNL-developed fabrication methods minimize cracking, deterioration and the possibility of leaks in the fuel-cell assembly. The ORNL technology has been licensed to Worldwide Energy, which has determined that several fuel-cell configurations are feasible and commercially viable.
Portals into the Lab
The work-for-others agreement is one of three primary mechanisms by which industry can take advantage of ORNL's unique expertise and equipment to solve an industrial research problem. The other two are the cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) and the user agreement.
Tom Ballard, head of partnerships and economic development in ORNL's Technology Transfer and Economic Development office, puts it simply, "I ask a potential industrial customer three questions. 'Do you want us to do work for you, do you want to work with our researchers, or do you want to work in our facilities?' " Pending agreement by the research manager, if the customer wants to pay ORNL to solve some problems, as in the example above, then the preferred mechanism is likely a work-for-others agreement.
"If an industrial firm seeks to conduct research in collaboration with ORNL researchers and share the costs of the joint research, sometimes with DOE, then a CRADA is probably the preferred mechanism of interaction," says Frank Damiano, team leader for sponsored research in TTED. "The purpose of a CRADA is to collaborate on a research problem and pool the R&D results to bring a specific technology to the marketplace. Scientific papers, patents and licenses may arise from a CRADA."
A company that wishes to use ORNL's unique equipment to conduct experiments or characterize a material would utilize a user agreement as the portal of entry to the Laboratory. Under a user agreement, a company can send its own staff to conduct research in one of DOE's designated user facilities at the Laboratory. ORNL personnel provide support to complete all essential elements of an experiment or do routine maintenance and repairs.
Alex Fischer, director of the Technology Transfer and Economic Development office, says, "In a user facility agreement we show the company's researchers how to use unique instruments. So long as the company's researchers publish their findings in the open literature, the company is not required to pay a fee for use of the government facility at ORNL provided that the facility has a base of funding support. Should the company wish to keep the research results proprietary, the company pays a fee negotiated in the contract." CRADAs and work-for-others agreements can lead to licenses in which a company, for purposes of profit, obtains the right to use patented technologies developed by ORNL researchers.
The largest ORNL-industry agreement is the $28 million CRADA with the United States Enrichment Corporation. ORNL researchers led by Wayne Manges are helping USEC researchers develop what they hope will be the world's most efficient method of producing a fuel enriched in fissionable uranium for nuclear power plants, which provide 20% of America's electricity. The ORNL-USEC team pursues a mission of creating economically attractive, high-speed gas centrifuge machines and processes for enriching uranium hexafluoride gas in normally scarce, fissionable uranium-235. Gas centrifuges use one-tenth the electrical power required by gaseous diffusion, the traditional method used in the United States for 60 years for uranium enrichment. ORNL research teams have improved centrifuge technology by using carbon-fiber composites for centrifuge components, smaller motors operated by power electronics, and a centrifuge design optimized by ORNL's state-of-the-art measurement technology and modeling and simulations using high-performance computing. The centrifuge machines are being built at a Boeing facility in Oak Ridge and are being tested on five improved testing stands located at East Tennessee Technology Park, where gas centrifuge technology was first tested decades ago.
One of DOE's energy missions encourages the development of a domestic industry for the manufacture of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) wire and devices. HTS wire enables underground cables, transformers, motors and generators to carry more current with no resistive losses, allowing these technologies to be more compact. ORNL has been supporting the DOE project for years, partly through CRADAs between industry and the Laboratory's High-Temperature Superconductivity Program. Acting program manager Dominic Lee says, "We are currently working on eight CRADAs, including work with domestic HTS wire manufacturers such as American Superconductor Corporation and SuperPower Inc. We also conduct cable, motor and transformer demonstration projects with companies such as Southwire, Rockwell Automation and Waukesha Electric Systems."
The licensure of ORNL technologies and use of Oak Ridge research findings have positioned American Superconductor to sell second-generation, high-temperature superconducting (2G HTS) wire for demonstration projects in several countries. This wire is made in part by using ORNL's rolling assisted biaxially textured substrates (RABiTS) technology.
ORNL has two CRADAs with SuperPower, which uses different deposition techniques to lay down its textured magnesium oxide (MgO) template and the high-quality, yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO) superconductor layer, which sandwich an ORNL-developed buffer layer Lee's group was proud that SuperPower recently beat their Japanese competitor in amp-meter wire performance, a key superconducting figure of merit for long wires. SuperPower announced this world record as a result of creating a wire 322 meters long that can carry 219 amperes per centimeter-width.
Lee's group is also working with Southwire Company in a test of a 200-meter HTS cable. Southwire, one of the largest cable and building wire manufacturers in the world, holds a substantial share of the global transmission and distribution cable market. The Columbus cable project—a partnership of Ultera (a joint venture of Southwire and NKT Cable of Denmark), American Electric Power, ORNL, American Superconductor and Praxair—uses a triaxial cable design, jointly invented by ORNL and Southwire. Because of the cable's compact design, the amount and cost of HTS wire are reduced by half, making this HTS cable project the least expensive in the world.
"Part of DOE's energy security mission is to keep the HTS industry domestic rather than offshore," Lee says, adding that ORNL is helping DOE develop super-conducting motors, cables, transformers and fault current limiters. "The Navy needs HTS motors that are smaller and weigh less for the integrated propulsion systems envisioned for an All-Electric Navy. Superconducting cables, transformers and fault current limiters working together would make a more secure and reliable national electric grid."
Residing in a key state for automotive parts manufacturing, ORNL works closely with the automotive industry, often through CRADAs and user agreements at the Laboratory's user facilities. A number of companies, including first and second tier automotive suppliers, conduct or fund automotive research at ORNL's High Temperature Materials Laboratory and the National Transportation Research Center. The two facilities contain an assortment of unique equipment for characterizing materials and testing devices.
According to Arvid Pasto, HTML director, "Industrial firms such as Caterpillar, Cummins Engine and Detroit Diesel have been using the HTML to find ways to control emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxides to meet new Environmental Protection Agency limits. Under a user agreement, an industrial firm has 10 days to use HTML to solve a problem. We have a CRADA with Cummins Engine to help the company improve the longevity of a catalyst needed for emission control."
The research is diverse. The Ford Motor Company has been working with HTML researchers to determine if an infrared camera can be installed on Ford's assembly line to assess the quality of welds while being made on each car.
Daimler-Chrysler came to HTML because of a mystery: a small percentage of one automotive component continued to fail unexpectedly. None of the standard characterization techniques yielded an answer. But when a specimen was placed in HTML's Auger spectroscopy instrument, a Daimler-Chrysler researcher discovered a thin layer of phosphorus, which embrittles metal parts. The component's manufacturer later discovered that an incorrect atmosphere in the furnace used to heat-treat the components had prevented uniform dispersion of phosphorus throughout each part.
Closer to home, ORNL helped solve a problem for Industrial Ceramics Solutions, a small company in nearby Knoxville that manufactures diesel soot filters. Starting in 2007 EPA will require all American diesel-powered trucks to control soot emissions, and some manufacturers will use the filters to reduce particulate releases to the air. The company's owner learned that his filter product occasionally cracks and lets the soot escape, undermining filter performance.
"We helped him understand what happens to the filter to make it crack," Pasto says. "Our insights allowed him to come up with a better fabrication process that makes the filters last longer."
For ORNL and its industrial partners, the legal mechanisms for interactions—work-for-others agreements, CRADAs and user agreements—are designed to benefit both parties. As a result, industries throughout Tennessee and the United States have benefited in multiple ways, boosting America's scientific and economic competitiveness.
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