onald Trump and The Deal. Yuppie success and homelessness. Supply/demand and Afghanistan. Qaddafi and Khomeini; Madonna and Michael; Gorby and the Gipper. MTV and HIV and Pan Am flight 103. Read My Lips: Just Do It but Just Say No. Just the fax, and ET phone home. Berlin Wall comes a-tumblin' down.
It's early yet to formulate judgements on ORNL's 1980s, to assign the orderings and meanings that add flesh and nerve to a history's skeleton of fact. But already some things stand out clearly.
No less surely than social turmoil influenced ORNL's 1960s and energy concerns shaped its '70s, the ``Reagan Revolution'' guided much of the '80s--and sometimes set sharply different courses. Synfuels (and ORNL's coal program) were out; so was ``shivering in the dark,'' according to President Reagan, along with most government funding for solar and geothermal research. Energy independence was out: By the end of the decade, imports would supply nearly half of America's oil. Even the Department of Energy itself was out, condemned (sporadically and unsuccessfully) to administrative execution because, the president said, it had ``never produced one barrel of oil.''
What was in was ``Star Wars''--the Strategic Defense Initiative--for whose missile-killing systems ORNL developed rugged, high-precision optical windows, mirrors, and high-energy particle beams. Also in was the free market, which, if given rein, would balance energy supply and demand. So were nuclear power (theoretically, if not fiscally) and basic research, the long-range, high-risk kind that corporate America couldn't afford to gamble on in the way ORNL had been gambling--with the calculation born of expertise and strategic thinking--for four decades.
On first glance, the Lab's energy-conservation work might have seemed doomed in the 1980s, destined for the free-market chopping block. In the end, though, ORNL's strong focus on high-tech materials--tough, heat-resistant ceramics for advanced auto and truck engines, especially--gave it the long-range, high-risk orientation needed to pass White House muster. In addition, the program's responsiveness to the research needs of turbine- and diesel-engine manufacturers won surprisingly strong support from the industrial sector.
The program's heritage was nuclear: materials development for reactors in the '50s. The materials work survived nuclear power's hard times by shifting to industrial energy efficiency in the 1970s. Now the transition to transportation-oriented ceramics development represented yet another new lease on life. By 1987 the program had become one of the Laboratory's largest; it moved into a sophisticated new R&D complex, the High Temperature Materials Laboratory, where ORNL scientists work side-by-side with industry researchers to develop and test advanced ceramics and alloys.
Other conservation work--development of high-efficiency heat pumps and joint R&D with the building-insulation industry--also survived and grew during the 1980s. After the initial uncertainties, funding for ORNL's conservation program more than doubled during the Reagan era.
The success of the Lab's materials program underscored a hallmark of the 1980s at ORNL, one that was more a matter of style than of substance: How the Lab researched began to matter almost as much as what the Lab researched. Programs and facilities throughout the Lab began opening their doors to scientists and engineers from universities and industry. In the first year of the decade, three major new ``user facilities'' opened:
The Holifield Heavy Ion Research Facility, with its 25-million-volt electrostatic accelerator, offered twice the power of similar machines, plus an adjoining cyclotron to serve as a post-accelerator. With the world's widest range of heavy ion species and energies, the Holifield facility became a mecca for western-world scientists, averaging hundreds of guest researchers each year. It also served as a model for other specialized facilities geared toward outside researchers.
To capitalize on the intense neutron beams of the High Flux Isotope Reactor, the Laboratory established the National Center for Small-Angle Scattering Research, the nation's first neutron-research complex to operate as a user facility. By detecting how neutrons are deflected, or scattered, by samples, the center allowed visiting researchers from universities and corporations (including DuPont, Exxon, and IBM) to probe the structure and properties of a wealth of materials: tough new plastics made of tightly ordered molecular chains, radiation-resistant alloys for fusion reactors, DNA and other tiny structures within cells.
At the other end of the technological spectrum were the research tools offered by a third new user facility: trees and grass, water and rocks, dirt and bugs. The 12,400 acres of the National Environmental Research Park offered researchers a living laboratory for studies of acid rain, animal populations, pollutant migration through the ecosystem, and waste-digesting bacteria.
By 1990, the Lab was home to a dozen user facilities, ranging from accelerators and ceramics labs to a large climate-simulation chamber that could compress weeks of insulation-battering weather into the space of days. In 1991 these facilities would attract 3,600 guest researchers to ORNL; 30 percent of them were industry scientists, a sixfold increase since 1980.
In addition to user facilities, ORNL pioneered other ways to transfer the benefits of its work into the private sector during 1980s: Cooperative R&D agreements, called CRADAs, allow corporations to work directly with ORNL experts to solve specific problems or develop proprietary technologies or processes. Invention-licensing policies allow companies to secure marketing rights to ORNL developments. Royalty-sharing provisions also give ORNL inventors a share of the proceeds if their invention meets a market need.
And in the open-door program with perhaps the longest-range focus of all, ORNL dramatically expanded its links with regional and national educational institutions--including the University of Tennessee, historically black colleges, and other schools--offering innovative programs for students at every level from kindergarten through postdoctoral research. In 1984, for example, the Lab created the Ecological and Physical Sciences Study Center, a hands-on, outdoor classroom where thousands of students each year perform chemical ``magic,'' ferret out animal signs, and acquire a literal feel for natural selection--the skins and skulls, teeth and claws that fit various species into their ecological niches. Fittingly, when Alvin Trivelpiece became ORNL's director in 1989, education became one of his top priorities. With experience in senior posts at DOE and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Trivelpiece was the Lab's first ``outside'' director--and an apt symbol of newly opened doors.
One of the most painful and costly tasks of the decade--for ORNL as for many other DOE facilities--was coming to environmental terms with decades of radioactive and chemical wastes. Groundwater beneath the Lab had been contaminated by leaks from burial trenches and aging pipes. Old radwaste tanks had to be emptied and decontaminated; leaking chemical drains had to be repaired or replaced. By some reckonings, cleaning up ORNL's backyard could take three decades and hundreds of millions of dollars.
Similarly, ORNL spent months and millions in the 1980s assessing the operating procedures and safety systems of its five research reactors: the High Flux Isotope Reactor, Bulk Shielding Reactor, Tower Shielding Facility, Oak Ridge Research Reactor, and Health Physics Research Reactor. In 1987, DOE ordered the five reactors idled for detailed safety reviews. In 1989, with the nation's inventory of certain isotopes badly depleted, a refurbished HFIR was restarted, with less power but more safety procedures; the Tower Shielding reactor was later revived as well. It was a far cry from the brash, can-do days of the Graphite Reactor, when researchers yoked a toy generator to the reactor to make the world's first nuclear power: a one-third watt trickle that lit a flashlight bulb. ORNL's reactors had come of age, and a cautious late-middle age, at that.
Amid the setbacks, though, came a ray of hope on the nuclear horizon: In 1984 the Lab began planning an ambitious new research reactor, the Advanced Neutron Source, to begin operation at the turn of the century. With 10 times the neutron intensity of the HFIR--and an equal advantage over HFIR's newer, more sophisticated rival in France--the billion dollar project aimed to restore the U.S. lead in neutron research and establish itself as the world's finest research reactor.
ORNL's studies of the genetic effects of chemicals broadened during the 1980s to include more fundamental research on genetic disorders themselves--the basis for an estimated 4,000 inheritable diseases or medical problems: birth defects, kidney disease, schizophrenia, even some forms of cancer. ORNL biologists began harnessing a powerful new tool for probing genetics disorders: ``transgenic'' mice, whose genes contain an added fragment of foreign DNA. By knowing a transgene's location and observing the mice that develop from transgenic eggs, researchers are beginning to pinpoint the genes responsible for normal--and abnormal--development of limbs, spine, kidneys, brain, heart.
Similarly, using new techniques of protein engineering, ORNL researchers began exploring the intricate workings of enzymes, the regulators of the complex biochemistry we call life. An enzyme of particular interest is one that regulates photosynthesis. If enzymologists can someday re-engineer the enzyme for higher efficiency, they could boost crop yields, speed reforestation, and slow buildup of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.
As international boundaries shifted and blurred in the 1980s, ORNL's boundaries broadened. Starting in 1982, at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development, ORNL scientists embarked for some two dozen developing nations to help with energy technology and policy assessments. The assessments help countries identify ways to secure the energy they need for economic growth, while reducing stress on the global environment and world oil market.
In another nod to the global village, in 1989 ORNL established the multidisciplinary Center for Global Environmental Studies. Some problems--greenhouse gases, ozone loss, climate change, species extinctions--know no boundaries.
From Chips to Hips
Date posted 5/10/94 (cel)