Delivering The Science
The world's scientific community is flocking to ORNL's modern research facilities.
For nearly seven decades, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has operated some of the world's premiere scientific research facilities. During the Laboratory's early years, these facilities were shrouded in the secrecy of the Manhattan project and closed to outside researchers. Over the last half century, as the government's mission and research agenda have evolved, ORNL has opened its doors, both literally and figuratively, to the world's research community. Today, Oak Ridge enjoys a reputation for helping deliver science by making available its state-of-the-art facilities for use by guest researchers from around the world.
ORNL is home to a number of highly sophisticated research laboratories, known in the vernacular as "user facilities." Containing unique equipment and capabilities too large or too expensive for the academic community or the private sector, these research user facilities are designed to serve ORNL research staff, as well as leading scientists from universities, industries and other government laboratories.
In 2009 ORNL hosted some 2,500 users from approximately 550 different organizations. This record number of users reflects a decade-long expansion of the Laboratory's user program, a trend that accelerated with the addition of the Spallation Neutron Source, the Leadership Computing Facility and the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences to ORNL's portfolio of user facilities. The opening over the last five years of these new facilities, all of which are among the world's most advanced in their respective fields, has greatly expanded opportunities for technological breakthroughs in dozens of scientific disciplines, including biomedicine, materials, climate change and alternative energy.
"The biggest change—and the biggest challenge in our user program over the last several years—has been the rapid addition of new facilities," said Bill Painter, Manager of ORNL's User Facilities Program Office. "For years, the number of facilities open to users was fairly static. However, with the addition of major new facilities, we are experiencing a large increase in requests by scientists wishing to conduct experiments. It's a good kind of problem, but some of ORNL's user facilities have substantially more requests than they can accommodate."
Fortunately, the capacity of some user facilities is expanding, as well. "The Spallation Neutron Source will have 12 beam lines available this year, up from 10 a year ago," Painter said. "They are accepting more research proposals and anticipating a record number of users." Similarly, the National Center for Computational Sciences, which boasts the world's most powerful supercomputer and is home to the Leadership Computing Facility, is expanding its capacity and will soon host three petascale computers dedicated to open scientific research—the largest concentration by far of scientific computing power on earth.
A unique collection
ORNL's current emphasis on providing broad access to research facilities had its origin in 1983, when the Department of Energy adopted the official designation of "user facilities." Broadly defined, these facilities comprised unique collections of research equipment and expertise unavailable to most industrial or academic research programs. Impressed by the popularity of the user facilities, DOE gradually expanded the program by funding facilities that focused upon particular needs of the American economy or the scientific community. ORNL's High Temperature Materials Laboratory, for example, was constructed in the mid-1980s to support the competitiveness of the U.S. transportation industry. More recently, the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source was designated by legislation as a user facility to provide unmatched materials research capabilities.
"By officially designating user facilities, the Department of Energy made it clear that the research capabilities of ‘big science' projects would be made available to government laboratories, universities and private industry," Painter said. ORNL hosts hundreds of users in each of these categories. At facilities like the Spallation Neutron Source and the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, user agreements are primarily with universities and other laboratories. A larger percentage of users from industry and government agencies gravitate toward the Laboratory's "applied science" facilities, such as the High Temperature Materials Laboratory.
ORNL is careful to not permit the unparalleled technological resources of the Laboratory's user facilities to be placed in competition with private industry. Indeed, some user facilities exist precisely because there is no comparable research capability in the private sector. An example is ORNL's Building Technologies Research and Integration Center. In an era when most building material manufacturers have abandoned research and development programs, ORNL offers a state-of-the-art climate simulation laboratory that can be used to test building components under a range of weather conditions. The unique simulation capability of the center enables manufacturers to increase the efficiency of their products while decreasing the cost of production.
Similarly, ORNL's High Temperature Materials Laboratory works with the trucking industry to apply the facility's materials characterization capabilities to tasks such as making key components lighter and more durable, converting exhaust heat to electricity and removing pollutants from truck exhaust.
A competitive process
Like most programs at ORNL, access to the Laboratory's user facilities is based upon competitive proposals. An organization wishing to conduct research must submit a proposal detailing both purpose and process. Proposals are reviewed and evaluated on the basis of scientific merit, suitability for the user facility and the proposal's alignment with the Department of Energy's research objectives. Researchers whose proposals are selected are awarded use of ORNL's resources for a specified time to generate and analyze their data. If the user agrees to publish any findings in open literature, the research is free of cost.
ORNL's user program is predicated on the belief that there is a lasting benefit to both the nation and the scientific community in the sharing of research. Most user agreements contain a commitment by the researchers to publish or share the results of their work at ORNL. The philosophy of openness enables other scientists to build on the knowledge gained in these studies and to apply the findings of others to their own research projects. There are exceptions to this policy. On occasion, an industrial customer will apply to conduct proprietary research at an ORNL user facility. In such cases, the user pays the full cost of conducting the research. While some user projects involve important proprietary research, more than 90 percent of the projects conducted at ORNL user facilities contain findings that are shared with the broader scientific community.
Looking ahead, ORNL is seeking to expand even further what is already one the world's leading user programs. A unique collection of scientific facilities is bringing together an equally unique collection of talent and creativity, all inspired by the possibility of discovery. Judging by the growing number of researchers wishing to take advantage of this opportunity, ORNL's user program is just beginning to realize its potential.
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations