Delivering the Science
...and Putting It to Work
The vital mission of the X-10 facility that would evolve into Oak Ridge National Laboratory—the
pilot-scale production and separation of plutonium for the Manhattan Project—was successfully executed by a partnership that brought government, universities and industry together in an entirely new way. On a military reservation administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, DuPont engineers worked with scientists from the University of Chicago to design and construct a "chain-reacting pile," later known as the Oak Ridge Graphite Reactor, and a chemical separations plant.
This partnership achieved its goal of gram-scale production of plutonium in less than 18 months, conclusively demonstrating the value of combining basic science with engineering and industrial knowledge to accelerate innovation. It also set the stage for one of the earliest examples of technology transfer from national laboratories to industry.
Once the Graphite Reactor completed its plutonium production mission, its capabilities were refocused on research and isotope production. In June 1946, an article in Science announced the availability of radioisotopes to the scientific public. Within 5 years, Abbott Laboratories had constructed a plant in Oak Ridge so that it could use radionuclides from the Graphite Reactor to prepare radiolabeled compounds for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. Today the production of radioisotopes for scientific, medical and industrial applications is a multibillion-dollar industry.
As ORNL evolved into a multidisciplinary institution, it continued to partner with industry, both to achieve its mission assignments and to deliver practical solutions that improve the quality of everyday life. Long before technology transfer was formally established as a U.S. Department of Energy mission, ORNL developments such as pocket radiation alarms, the zonal centrifuge and advanced alloys found their way to the marketplace, and startup companies based on ORNL technology were launched by entrepreneurially minded researchers.
In the 1980s, growing concerns about U.S. competitiveness led to legislation that provided ORNL with new tools for technology transfer. Licenses, collaborative research agreements, and cooperative research and development agreements were added to agreements that provided industry researchers with access to ORNL's expanding suite of scientific user facilities. Collaborations at the Roof Research Center, the High Temperature Materials Laboratory, the High Flux Isotope Reactor, and other user facilities led to the transfer of developments in ceramics, semiconductors, insulation and other commercially promising technologies.
When UT-Battelle assumed responsibility for managing ORNL in April 2000, the new contractor made a commitment to build on the laboratory's record of success in technology transfer, with an emphasis on engaging in regional economic development and fostering an entrepreneurial culture. The results have been impressive: nearly 100 new companies or product lines based on ORNL innovations have been launched. More than 400 jobs were created at a single plant in Louisville, Kentucky, where General Electric is manufacturing a hybrid electric heat pump water heater developed through a CRADA with ORNL. Today, ORNL has 106 technology licenses in place, and a Science and Technology Park on the ORNL campus is facilitating new and expanded partnerships.
The growing recognition that innovation is the key to economic growth and global competitiveness creates new opportunities for ORNL to extend its record of excellence in partnering with industry. The need for transformative science and technology to solve problems in energy, environment and security provides a further impetus for ORNL to form partnerships that take advantage of the lab's exceptional capabilities and expertise.
We receive public funding based on the promise of a return to society in the form of jobs, improved standards of living, a more secure future, and clean and affordable energy. This promise is realized only when the science and technology that we develop makes its way into the commercial world, highlighting the importance of technology transfer to our mission.
This issue of the ORNL Review illustrates how we are leveraging public and private resources to strengthen our research portfolio and accelerate the translation of innovation to the marketplace. The work of the Manhattan Project partnership, which achieved its original mission and delivered unlooked-for benefits that continue to touch our lives today, is an inspiration to these efforts.
Thom Mason, Director
Oak Ridge National Laboratory