Some four decades ago, ORNL Lab Director Alvin Weinberg was asked to explain the purpose of the national laboratories. One might have expected that Weinberg, a veteran of the Manhattan Project and one of America's foremost nuclear scientists, would respond with an answer that revealed the depth of his intellect and the extraordinary complexity of the laboratory he managed. He did—with a simplicity that captured both his brilliance and his vision for the unique collection of assets in America's system of national laboratories.
"Our purpose," Weinberg said, "is to solve the big problems." Standing less than five and one-half feet tall, Weinberg understood that America's future would confront the scientific problems that required facilities and capabilities beyond the ability of industry or even the best universities to provide. Grouped broadly within the three categories of energy, the environment and national security, these grand scientific challenges today constitute the research agenda for the Department of Energy's national laboratory system.
This issue of the ORNL Review examines ten of the world's most important energy-related challenges. Nine of these challenges are related directly to the twin goals of providing an adequate volume of sustainable energy while dramatically reducing current levels of carbon emissions. Indeed, one of the most pressing decisions facing policymakers is determining which combinations of new technologies offer the best chance of delivering on these goals. Each proposed technology, however promising, is accompanied by a level of uncertainty that complicates efforts to predict which combinations of discoveries will deliver the best long-term returns. The investment of resources required to develop these technologies would appear enormous unless viewed in the context of the stakes, both environmentally and economically, for America's future.
As the nation's largest energy research facility, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is playing a leading role in addressing each of energy's "10 Big Problems." Our strategy is grounded in the belief that no single technology and no single energy source can alone provide the volume of energy capable of sustaining both the quality of our lives and the viability of our planet. Indeed, this belief is now shared by the Administration and the Congress, who together have embarked upon the most dramatic program of scientific research since the Manhattan Project. Working through the Department of Energy, there is a collective and accelerated effort to attack each of the 10 Big Problems.
In some respects, this endeavor is like no other in American history. Success will depend, not just upon the delivery of a host of challenging new technological discoveries, but also upon the willingness of the American public to make fundamental changes in their daily activities. The development of dramatic new technologies for battery storage or the electric grid will be of little value if Americans prove unable to adapt their life styles to electric cars or to the idea that it will be cheaper to wash their clothes at night rather than in the afternoon.
At Oak Ridge, we are betting on the resilience of the American people, and mindful of Alvin Weinberg's confidence that we are capable of solving the big problems.
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