On occasion opportunity is more a product of fate than design. When, in 1942, Oak Ridge was chosen as one of three locations for the Manhattan Project, the decision was driven by the availability of cheap and abundant electricity and the remoteness of East Tennessee farmland. The idea that the new "national laboratory" would someday be a critical asset in the search for advanced energy science and technology was never considered.
More than six decades passed, a time during which changes in America's research priorities resulted in similar changes for the mission of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Today, the need to provide an adequate, affordable and environmentally sustainable sources of energy is a domestic priority with long-term consequences as important as the Manhattan Project. Once again, due to an entirely different combination of circumstances, ORNL is playing a leading role in building the research foundation required to develop a comprehensive set of energy options.
ORNL is the Department of Energy's only research laboratory located in the South. With the nation's largest energy research portfolio, the Laboratory has emerged as a major partner in the region's economic growth. Across the South, ORNL has established research partnerships with a growing number of universities and the private sector, with particular focus on multi-state utilities and the South's growing automotive industry.
This issue of the ORNL Review examines the Laboratory's energy mission, looking at each area of research in relation to the economy's energy sectors, with the Tennessee region as a demonstration center. Largely by coincidence, most of America's major energy challenges are represented in the region. The South is home to nuclear power plants that seek new materials for their reactors and a permanent solution for their spent fuel. The Tennessee Valley Authority owns one of the nation's largest systems of energy distribution and is looking for new ways to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants. The state of Tennessee has invested $72 million in biofuels research, including a biorefinery to produce ethanol from cellulose using processes developed at ORNL. The South is home to ten automotive assembly plants—two in Tennessee—and hundreds of suppliers that are reaching out for help with transportation and infrastructure technologies. Perhaps most ambitious of all, Oak Ridge is coordinating America's participation in ITER, the $12 billion, multi-national effort to design and build the world's first fusion reactor involving the governments of more than half the world's population.
The Department of Energy has determined, correctly, that no single technology will ever be the "silver bullet" required to meet the world's expanding energy demands or mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, the ability to provide America with adequate, affordable and sustainable energy will be based on an array of new technologies spread across the areas of energy generation, distribution and consumption. Because there is literally a testbed for each of these technologies in the Tennessee region, ORNL's research agenda increasingly is both shaped and strengthened by the confluence of accessibility and need.
Not unlike the Manhattan Project, ORNL's emerging role as a leader in energy research might be viewed as the product of fate. Regardless, the Laboratory's commitment—and expectations—are unchanged.
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