Measurement and the "circle" of research
"If you can't measure it, you're not doing science."
The expression evolved to a large extent from the fact that the process of scientific inquiry is based on the ability to produce measurable and reproducible results. Thus it comes as no surprise that Ken Tobin, director of ORNL's Measurement Science and Systems Engineering Division, sees measurement playing an increasingly central role in the entirety of research performed at the laboratory. "I think of measurement science as an integral part of a 'circle' of research that connects fundamental and computational sciences," Tobin says. "Measurement systems are the key to translating observations from the physical world into data that can be analyzed by computational systems. To complete the circle, computational systems simulate 'virtual' new materials providing researchers with the insights they need to create these materials in the lab, which requires significant measurement and characterization capabilities." This process starts the cycle again: materials, measurement, computation, measurement and back to materials. Tobin believes the ability to accurately measure, characterize and control physical, biological, environmental or other engineered processes is critical to all of the work done at ORNL, regardless of whether the measurements involve analyzing new materials, calculating the impact of carbon in the environment or controlling the electric grid.
Tobin's division specializes in exploring and developing measurement systems that sample the physical world to produce highfidelity and reliable data. The systems the researchers develop often extend the reach of existing technologies or create entirely new capabilities. "For example," Tobin says, "one of our projects that links basic science to applied research is our work in developing nanostructured surfaces." These unusual materials can be used for a range of applications, including producing surfaces with an amazing ability to repel water. These surfaces have practical applications in anti-icing, fabric coatings and novel sensors. Measurement science enters the picture when researchers are required to devise ways of determining how efficiently these materials accomplish their aims. "We have developed systems that can accurately measure a material's ability to repel water by looking at the contact angles of water droplets on surfaces in a variety of ways," Tobin explains, adding "we are also using the same kind of nanostructured materials to produce entirely new measurement devices."
ORNL researchers also use their electronics expertise to produce sophisticated and highly customized measurement systems. "The electronics for the Nuclear Materials Identification System have undergone quite a bit of evolution since we developed it in the 1990s," Tobin says. The instrumentation developed for the system enables technicians to make precisely timed measurements to scan containers to determine the presence of nuclear materials. ORNL scientists originally developed this system in support of the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties. Today the system is also used by the Department of Homeland Security in a range of applications, including air cargo examination and monitoring for highways, railways, ports and harbors.
In the biomedical area, Tobin's group has developed computed tomography systems to support mammalian genetics work. "When the project began several years ago, the idea was to be able to detect nonvisible manifestations of disease in animals using a high-throughput, highresolution anatomic scanner. We made it possible for geneticists to take measurements from a large number of unique mice without having to destroy them," Tobin says. Recent spinoffs from the program include the development of functional imaging using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) to show how small animals metabolize glucose or incorporate protein.
Tobin sees measurement science playing an increasingly important role in the laboratory's research. "We're making inroads into new areas of measurement," Tobin says, pointing to microelectrical mechanical systems as an area in which his team is increasingly conducting research. The sensors can be used for a range of applications, from collision avoidance to instrumentation, for small modular nuclear reactors. The trend is toward integrating the sensors into wireless networks that communicate to a central control system. "This kind of comprehensive measurement and control system is an important aspect of what we are trying to achieve as we go forward in the measurement research area," Tobin says. "We continue to grow our research capabilities and generate output that supports the lab's energy mission, addressing new methods, instruments and integrated systems for energy efficiency, renewable energy, transportation, nuclear energy and nonproliferation technologies."
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