A Legacy Continues
On a clear day at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one can see in the distance the Smoky Mountains, a spectacular range cloaked in green forest that defines Tennessee's eastern boundary. Since the late 18th century, the mountains have been home to families and individuals who have left an indelible mark on the culture of a modern society that today has largely passed them by.
If we know where to look, the legacy of our mountain ancestors can be found even in one of the world's most modern research laboratories. Visitors to the ORNL campus are often struck by the site of spectacular science facilities located adjacent to a small white wooden church. Now closed and maintained as a museum by the Laboratory, the New Bethel Baptist Church stands sentry by a picturesque graveyard, a reminder of those who lived and worked here generations before the Manhattan Project.
On the other end of the campus, another legacy of our mountain ancestors can be found amid the test tubes and laboratories, where scientists at the Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center are seeking to decode the mysteries of cellulosic ethanol. The irony of their work is inescapable. For more than 250 years, the people of the mountains around them have perfected what is essentially the same task—separating the sugars from plants to make alcohol. With little formal education and working with only the most primitive tools, the "moonshiners" produced a product that over time became a fundamental component of the Appalachian economy.
Today, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and supported by some of America's leading scientific talent, ORNL's BioEnergy Science Center in many respects is attacking the same scientific challenges faced by our ancestors in the hills and hollows of the Smoky Mountains. For ORNL, the stakes are higher. Instead of producing alcohol for limited local consumption, the Laboratory has been assigned the challenge of helping decipher the evolutionary code for an entirely new generation of biofuels capable of transforming the American automobile industry.
Three years into this effort, this issue of the ORNL Review examines initial findings that have exceeded expectations. Researchers believe they are within reach of developing new enzymes and microbes that can not only breakdown the resistance of plants to sugar extraction, but do so in a way that produces biofuels at a cost competitive with that of gasoline. Equally important, they are using crops such as switchgrass and poplar trees that do not require the amounts of water, fertilizer and farmland that in the past have raised questions about the environmental sustainability of domestic biofuels as a viable replacement for imported oil. Perhaps most exciting, the quest to develop cellulosic biofuels also has incorporated potential uses for the byproducts of the manufacturing process. If these products, which include low-weight and high-strength carbon fiber, can demonstrate their commercial value, their economic potential is unlimited.
Meanwhile, these remarkable discoveries are a faint echo of days gone by, the legacy of a scientific challenge that endures in the hills of East Tennessee.
Billy Stair, Director
Communications & External Relations Directorate
Oak Ridge National Laboratory