Demonstrating an energy future in our backyard.
When the federal government built Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, the facility—established to demonstrate that plutonium can be separated from a reactor, which led to one of the nation's first nuclear weapons—was hidden in the hills of East Tennessee precisely so no one could uncover the top-secret operation. Even after the end of World War II, when the government's quiet project came to light, ORNL scientists often seemed to fit more comfortably in national and international venues or the halls of Washington, D.C., than in their rural southern backyard.
The past half-century, however, has brought sweeping economic changes to the South, attracting modern industry, new populations of transplants from the North and Midwest and unprecedented growth that is not expected to abate in coming decades. Changes have come to ORNL as well. In recent years, the Laboratory has been establishing partnerships with universities, economic developers and industries throughout the Southeast in an effort to raise the profile of the region as a center for research and development. As a result, ORNL is uniquely positioned to demonstrate future innovation of benefit to the nation—and the world—through collaborations closer to home.
At the forefront of these efforts is energy. The increase in energy demand, primarily a result of global population growth and the expansion of manufacturing into the developing world, is placing pressure on natural resources central to energy production. Simultaneously, environmental concerns and in particular greenhouse emissions are demanding reconsideration of fossil fuel combustion. Finally, global geopolitical instability is sending ripples throughout energy markets, causing policy action in many countries. For example, petroleum underpins global transportation, but cost and geopolitical instabilities in the Middle East have brought the hunt for new transportation fuels closer to home. Energy supply uncertainty, together with imperatives for environmental and national security, necessitates pursuing ways to do more with less and tap power sources that are locally available, renewable, and sustainable—i.e., the regional use of wind, sun or crops that can be transformed into electricity or transportation fuel. Nuclear power is poised for resurgence, and renewed interest in energy efficiency, particularly in buildings applications, has already begun to add value.
"The South offers an ideal testbed for demonstrating the economic potential for all of these energy production approaches," says Dana Christensen, ORNL associate laboratory director for energy and engineering. "Whether it be power generation, transportation, distribution or efficiency in energy use, including capitalizing on renewable energy sources, we have expertise across a broad spectrum of disciplines to address the problem, from basic research to commercial application."
The Laboratory is already hard at work. In May 2007, ORNL and seven southern universities announced creation of the Automotive Research Alliance in an effort to provide expertise to the South's 10 automotive assembly plants and more than 3,000 suppliers. With political and economic pressure to create lighter weight, more efficient vehicles, alliance organizers believe automakers will be eager to tap into these local R&D resources, particularly if they are cost effective.
In June 2007, the Department of Energy awarded a $135 million bioenergy research center to a team led by ORNL, which includes such southern partners as the University of Tennessee, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, North Carolina State and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma. In conjunction with the award, the state of Tennessee announced it would pump $70 million into a cellulose-based transportation fuels demonstration. The award has also spawned an effort known as the Bioenergy Alliance, drawing on the expertise of additional research institutions throughout the region and using the regional expertise of the Southern Growth Policies Board to generate even more bioenergy-related funding and research.
In October, the first annual Southeast Solar Summit was held at ORNL, attracting a capacity crowd of southern companies, researchers and decision makers interested in developing the nascent solar technology market. Plans are under way to capitalize on the intense interest in developing a solar demonstration project, tuned to southern applications.
A retirement community now under development in Crossville, Tenn., plans to rely on energy efficiency expertise at ORNL, expanding on a local near-zero-energy Habitat for Humanity housing development in Lenoir City, Tenn., by developing a "deep-green" community of 7,000 to 10,000 homes for retiring baby boomers seeking sustainable lifestyles. As the demand for green, energy-efficient buildings and products explodes across the country, ORNL is engaged in talks to partner with other regional developers as well for both residential and commercial projects.
ORNL is working with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the major power provider for seven southeastern states, on a number of fronts. Leaders at ORNL and TVA are partnering on technologies supporting nuclear fuel reprocessing, clean technologies for fossil fuel plants and energy efficiency that can help the federally owned corporation meet a demand that is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. This revolutionary partnership combines the skills of a major electricity provider and economic development agency with the R&D resources of a major national energy laboratory to establish energy sustainability in our local economy.
Christensen envisions many more such partnerships with industry, universities, communities and other national laboratories.
"As a national laboratory, we must push the scientific and engineering boundaries toward finding cost-effective solutions to national and international challenges," he says. "Everyone, from federal laboratories to states to the private sector, must come together to solve the energy problem. No one energy technology can do it all; we need them all but only if each technology can be deployed in a safe and sustainable fashion. Only then will taxpayers truly receive a return on their investment." —Larisa Brass
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations