On December 14, 1911, a team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90°00'S, the first time in recorded history that humans stood at the South Pole. Led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, one of the most significant scientific endeavors of his era was accomplished under some of the most extreme conditions found on Earth. Unlike the tragic expedition of Robert Scott that followed weeks later, Amundsen succeeded because he had an appreciation for the extreme conditions, and because he prepared carefully.
Nearly a century later, the scientific community confronts challenges in some respects as daunting as those faced by the Polar expedition. Today policymakers ask for assurance that containers storing spent nuclear fuel can resist corrosion for thousands of years. An automotive industry engaged in a ferocious international competition demands new materials that are lighter and stronger but at the same time cheaper than steel or aluminum. Meanwhile, scientists must respond to the growing demand for electricity with rapidly accelerated efforts to harness the sun's energy for generating electricity for transportation, industrial and residential applications while addressing concurrent challenges in electrical storage and grid infrastructure.
For researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, each of these challenges requires entering a new dimension of discovery where exploration is undertaken at the extreme borders of science with tools unimaginable only a decade ago. In ORNL's nanoscience center, researchers control the structure of materials over a distance one million times smaller than a human hair. Next door, the Spallation Neutron Source is uniquely suited for the study of materials under extreme conditions, including pressures approaching those found at the center of the Earth. In ORNL's Center for Computational Sciences, a supercomputer conducts classical simulations of three million atoms at 270 trillion calculations per second. Data used by scientists attempting to understand the mysteries of the universe are measured, not in centuries, but in billions of years.
This issue of the ORNL Review features a sampling of research that could be defined as "extreme science." The research topics represent a broad variety of unique scientific challenges that can be understood only in the context of extreme conditions of pressure, temperature, magnetic fields, radiation and intense light. These extreme conditions, in turn, can be studied only with some of the world's most sophisticated scientific instruments. One of the most exciting aspects of conducting research "on the edge" is the discovery that many materials under extreme conditions behave in new and unexpected ways. The ability to realign atoms under extreme conditions, for example, holds the potential for some materials to be as much as 100 times stronger than previously thought possible.
Working with the Department of Energy, ORNL is rethinking both the strategies and potential made possible by the ability to explore the extreme edge of science. The process requires that we abandon a host of assumptions that for decades have shaped our instincts about the limits of scientific inquiry. We are proving capable of this change, and are preparing for a journey that will lead us into new realms of discovery. Borrowing from Roald Amundsen a century ago, "Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it."
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