Innovation drives the nation
For businesses competing in the global marketplace, innovation increasingly requires complex interdisciplinary research and sophisticated science. Companies need skilled researchers and unique facilities in a variety of disciplines, and ORNL is well positioned to meet this demand.
Always handy with a metaphor, Laboratory Energy and Environmental Sciences head Martin Keller turns to classical architecture to describe ORNL’s capacity for supporting advances in manufacturing. “Our program is like a Greek temple,” he says. “The fundamental research disciplines—neutron physics, biology, materials science and supercomputing—are the foundation blocks.” Fundamental researchers analyze, simulate and create materials with the goal of understanding their structure, how that structure can be modified, and how the materials interact with the world around them. For example, laboratory biologists studying the genetics of certain plants have found that a handful of genetic changes make the plants much easier to process into biofuel, which could have important implications for the economic viability of biofuel production.
That knowledge, in turn, is used to develop technologies to improve products or manufacturing processes, especially in the areas of transportation, energy generation and storage, and additive manufacturing. “These technologies are the pillars of the temple,” Keller says.
Research and development projects provide the roof, putting these transformational technologies to work in a manufacturing environment. The Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, nearing completion a few miles from ORNL, is a textbook example of such a relationship. ORNL scientists and their industrial partners are applying decades of carbon fiber research to accelerate the development and commercial adoption of carbon fiber in manufacturing lighter, stronger components for cars and trucks, aircraft and wind turbines, among other uses.
Because the laboratory’s expertise in a number of key R&D areas is similarly broad, ORNL is in a position to be a major player in the effort to develop a range of technologies needed to strengthen American industry and expand the nation’s economy.
Fundamental toolsTo help illustrate ORNL’s multidisciplinary expertise, Keller holds up a durable, lightweight turbine blade produced by Morris Technologies using a process called additive manufacturing—a technology that enables manufacturers to design parts on a computerand then “print” them out in 3-D.
“These blades are used in jet engines,” he explains. “When the engine is stopped, they are curved, but when it is running and the turbine is spinning at high speed, they straighten out.” In order to perform in the unforgiving environment of a jet engine, these rugged components have been designed to exacting standards—a process that required the expertise of several ORNL research groups. “What alloys should we use?” Keller asks rhetorically. “We consulted materials experts. What is the most efficient design? We developed simulations on our supercomputer. What stresses are being placed on various points in the structure? We determined this using neutron analysis at the Spallation Neutron Source.” This collaborative approach is increasingly necessary to address complex research challenges, particularly those that involve working with manufacturers to translate basic research into marketable products.
Next generation jet engine turbine blade produced by Morris Technologies using 3-D printing technologies. Photo: Morris Technologies
The extent to which technology permeates modern life is also a factor that pushes “applied” research projects in the direction of multidisciplinary collaborations. For example, one of Keller’s keen interests is the prospect of creating transportation systems that are both economically and environmentally sustainable. He notes that it’s no longer enough to focus narrowly on optimizing the energy efficiency of engines. “That only addresses a small part of the question of sustainability. What about making vehicles lighter using carbon fiber composite materials? What about avoiding congestion by incorporating ‘smart’ sensors into our cars and roadways? What about electric vehicles and their implications for the nation’s electrical grid? Fifty years ago you could work on one specific problem and make a big impact,”Keller says. “That’s no longer the case. These days, problems are more complicated and cross traditional boundaries. As a national lab, we are poised to address this kind of problem.”
ORNL has a long record of success in working with industrial partners to apply its unusually broad spectrum of capabilities. For example, 1,300 jobs were created when General Electric moved a manufacturing facility from China to the United States to manufacture super efficient water heaters based on technology developed in a GE-ORNL collaboration. The laboratory’s supercomputing expertise also enabled BMI Corp. to develop add-on parts for18-wheel, long-haul trucks that could save up to 1.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel and $5 billion in fuel per year. Similarly, laboratory materials experts are working with a California company, Campbell Applied Physics, to address heat exchange problems in water desalination plants. A solution promises to cut their energy needs in half.
Keller emphasizes that the advanced testing and analysis required for these projects is out of the reach of most companies.“For the most part, they can’t do these things by themselves,” he says, “but we have the tools and the expertise to help them. This is the role ORNL needs to play in the new generation of manufacturing. We have the ability to link fundamental research to industrial applications and to enable the production of products like reliable turbine blades, lightweight carbon fiber for cars,and robotic limbs for injured soldiers. As a laboratory, we need to be part of the manufacturing process, helping companies improve processes and products with our understanding of fundamental science and our ability to translate that understanding into applications.”
Tearing down walls
Keller explains that, historically, scientists’ ability to play this kind of role has been hampered by the metaphorical wall between fundamental and applied studies in many research organizations. “At ORNL, we have been tearing down that wall,” he says,“and our efforts have been paying dividends.”Keller cites the example of a recent biofuels project that teamed fundamental researchers—experts at developing catalysts that improve the speed and efficiency of biofuel production—with applied scientists who were tasked with testing the performance of the fuel in engines. As they worked together, the two groups developed a greater appreciation for how their contributions ultimately fit together in the larger project, enabling them to tailor their efforts to meet each other’s specific needs.
This sort of successfully synergistic research has, in part, led to a tighter focus on the outcomes of research projects in both the applied and fundamental sciences. Keller notes that, as a result of this change in emphasis, applied researchers, whose contributions may have tended to be overlooked in the past, are now likely to find management paying more attention to their work. “I am finding that ORNL does much more applied research than I was aware of a couple years ago,” he says. “The talent the laboratory has in this area is amazing.”
While the ability to work across disciplines poses scientific and logistical challenges, it also presents tremendous opportunities. “A lot of people come to the laboratory because they see the potential of doing cross-disciplinary research,” Keller says. “This is our strength. Our new research centers, like the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors and the BioEnergy Science Center, make it much easier for researchers from ORNL and our industrial and academic partners to cross disciplines and gain the insights they need to solve pressing problems.”
Keller notes that future prospects for collaborations, both between national labs and industry and across disciplines within ORNL, are looking brighter. “When young scientists get out of school today,” he says, “they’re in a job market where their ability to collaborate and apply their findings is critical.” He recalls that it was a different story when he reentered the job market several years ago after 10 years in the biotech industry. “The reason I came to ORNL,” he says, “was that this was one of the few places I could do collaborative research with scientists from across the organization.”
Innovation drives the nation
Keller, who became a US citizen in 2009, notes that one of the nation’s strengths is the ability of its people to pull together in tough situations. “We are the most creative nation on earth,” he says, “and we have the best chance of coming up with solutions to the difficult problems facing the world today. Historically, innovation has been the driver of our nation, and I predict that will increase in the coming years. The national laboratories are playing a key role in encouraging innovation by taking a more integrated approach to research and development and working closely with a range of industrial partners. We can’t just innovate and then ship the resulting technology overseas so someone else can do the manufacturing. That’s not sustainable.”
Keller realizes that this surge of innovation won’t happen overnight, but he is convinced that the national laboratories will be critical to meeting the challenges facedby America’s manufacturers. “If you were to do a survey of ORNL scientists and ask themwhy they are working at the laboratory,”Keller says, “they would tell you they’re here to do exactly that sort of thing—to innovate, to overcome obstacles, and to solve the hard problems. We have to aim high to fulfill our mission.” —Jim Pearce