An unconventional approach attracts users to ORNL's nanocenter.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS) is one of five Department of Energy nanocenters with a unique mission. While most user facilities focus on measuring and characterizing a variety of materials, from the exotic to the mundane, the nanocenters are designed to develop and study materials that have never existed. "All five of the nanocenters concentrate on synthesizing and understanding new materials as opposed to analyzing samples that people bring in," says CNMS User Program Manager Tony Haynes. He notes that because the research at ORNL's nanocenter is geared toward new materials, users' projects tend to be somewhat less conventional and less predictable than those at other facilities. "We do not have the material in hand that we want to study, or even the recipe for making it," Haynes explains. "We usually try to make a material that has a particular set of properties, learn what we can from the process, and then repeat the process again and again to improve the result and to understand the new material."
One effect of this ground-up approach to research projects is that user requests for time at the nanocenter are longer than most. Nanocenter projects average 25 to 30 days, compared to three to five days at one of ORNL's neutron scattering facilities. Part of what makes the nanocenter attractive for these longer-term projects is access in a single location to a diverse collection of synthesis and characterization activities. Users who could perform portions of their research at their home institutions often find it more practical to complete the entire experimental process at ORNL. The nanocenter even provides theory capabilities that users can tap to guide or support experimental projects.
While the nanocenter's state-of-the-art equipment is an attraction for users, their research efforts often get a bigger boost from the capabilities of CNMS staff scientists. Haynes says users generally come to the center with their own notions about how to create the properties of proposed new materials or modify existing materials. "They might have an idea of the atomic structure or chemical composition that could make a material suitable for an application. They come Oak Ridge either to make the material or to have our staff perform theoretical calculations to validate their ideas. As part of the process, we help them test the material for the properties and functionality they originally envisioned."
To provide this support, CNMS scientists must be experts in both making and testing new materials to help users create or modify materials in such a way as to generate specific properties or physical characteristics. Haynes describes the nanocenter as being "in the business of embedding functions in new materials—thermal conductivity, for example, or mechanical stiffness." Once the materials are created, the nanocenter has an unusually large assortment of analytical tools and techniques to aid users in probing the structural, chemical, physical and other properties of their creations.
Neutrons for neighbors
Apart from distinctive capabilities, ORNL's nanocenter is also known for its distinctive location, adjacent to the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), the world's most powerful pulsed neutron research facility. While convenient, the proximity does not by itself give CNMS researchers an unfair advantage in the competition for research time at the SNS. "There is, as one would hope, substantial research collaboration between the nanocenter and the SNS," Haynes says, "but there is no special 'deal' between the two facilities." CNMS scientists must go through the same rigorous proposal procedure as other researchers to conduct an experiment at the SNS. Haynes acknowledges that proximity to the SNS does make it easier for CNMS scientists to collaborate with their SNS colleagues who already have been awarded allocations of time on various instruments. "We often make materials that neutron scattering experiments can help us understand," he says, "so we sometimes collaborate with SNS scientists who are interested in our research, the kind of collaboration that any researcher in the world can propose."
Funded by the Department of Energy's Basic Energy Sciences program, both the nanocenter and the SNS strive to simplify the procedures for users to propose and conduct experiments that involve synthesizing materials at the nanocenter and then analyzing them with the massive neutron instruments next door. Haynes is convinced the "cross-pollination" between disciplines produces innovative science. "The growth of new ideas among scientists from different research communities is the long-term benefit of these facilities being located together."
Producing a breakthrough
As a classic user facility, the Oak Ridge nanocenter provides visiting scientists with access to equipment that is unavailable in their own institutions. An added benefit is the opportunity for users to conduct research that also transcends the limitations of their staff. While scientists sometimes can perform 90 percent of their research without coming to CNMS, Haynes suggests the combination of equipment and staff capabilities is what users often need to produce a breakthrough.
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