On Sept. 28, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm joined leadership and top scientists and engineers online at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for a two-hour whirlwind tour. At 14 stops, researchers highlighted the lab’s world-class facilities and projects that enable leading-edge scientific discoveries and innovations that address some of the nation’s most compelling scientific and technical challenges.
On behalf of the lab’s 5,700 employees, ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia welcomed the energy secretary, who logged on from her Washington, D.C., office, kicking off the visit with an all-hands meeting where she took questions from ORNL staff.
“Meeting our nation’s brightest scientific minds has been certainly among the very highest highlights of this job,” said Granholm, who was sworn in on Feb. 25.
She expressed her support of basic science and recognized the importance of emerging technologies such as quantum materials that have the potential to transform technology, security and industry.
“The critical role of fundamental research (will) keep the country ahead of the curve throughout the century and ahead of our economic and geopolitical competitors,” Granholm said. “We know that the work that our labs are doing on this today provides the foundational knowledge that we need to solve big problems tomorrow."
Zacharia introduced ORNL in a short video, describing DOE’s largest science and energy laboratory as “a research institution that is truly beyond comparison.” He shared the lab’s vision to modernize ORNL into a net-zero campus by 2030: “An enormous challenge, but we believe you must do it to set an example and lead the way.”
He talked about ORNL’s efforts to leverage strong relationships with the University of Tennessee, Tennessee Valley Authority and other interested partners to create “an innovation city that will again draw the talent and energy necessary to solve the biggest problems.” He cited the recent launch of Techstars, a business accelerator to create 30 new start-up companies in the region over the next three years.
Granholm’s virtual meeting at ORNL is her 11th stop along her grand tour to visit all 17 DOE national labs this fall. She is just the second woman to lead DOE and previously served two terms as governor of Michigan, promoting manufacturing and clean energy. She is an international voice for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, building an equitable energy future, and keeping the United States a leader in scientific discovery and job creation.
“Everything we’re doing is helping us to get closer to achieving 100 percent clean electricity by 2030, a 50 percent cut in emissions by 2030 and (being) 100 percent decarbonized by 2050. Those are the goals,” she said.
After the all-hands meeting, ORNL guided the energy secretary through a series of live stops where she met researchers representing the breadth of the lab’s efforts in neutron science, quantum information science, fission and fusion energy, isotope production, supercomputing, climate modeling and simulation, large-scale ecosystem experiments, vehicle and building technologies, advanced manufacturing, COVID-19 research and bioenergy.
ORNL scientists featured projects designed to advance solutions to problems brought on by climate change, shared innovations toward decarbonization and illustrated how fundamental science endeavors lead to job creation and benefit society.
For example, neutrons produced by the Second Target Station, one of the nation’s biggest science projects, will provide critical insights into materials used in medicine, energy technologies and manufacturing. When operational, ORNL expects 1,000 scientists from around the world to visit and use STS each year.
Zacharia highlighted the lab’s progress toward Frontier, ORNL’s next supercomputer, which is anticipated to be the nation’s and perhaps the world’s first exascale machine when it’s fully assembled this fall.
Several scientists shared their research efforts coupling computational simulation and data from large-scale field experiments—such as Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments, or NGEE Arctic, and Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments, or SPRUCE—to create and strengthen models and provide predictive analysis critical in tackling the grand challenges of climate change.
They also talked about unlocking the potential for bioenergy by researching ways to turn biomass into biofuels to offset existing fossil fuels, particularly in aviation.
At ORNL’s Hardin Valley Campus, scientists focused on place-based innovation in manufacturing, transportation and decarbonization. They demonstrated the Connected and Automated Vehicle Environment Laboratory, or CAVE lab, which is North America’s first virtual-physical proving ground for connected and autonomous vehicle testing, and they shared a direct air carbon capture device for existing buildings that is under development, as well as dynamic wireless charging technologies for electric vehicles.
“That would be a beautiful thing,” Granholm said, referring to the prospect of driving her electric vehicle cross country without having to stop and charge up.
Scientists at the MDF described “moon-shot” projects in partnership with industry and academia to boost America’s global competitiveness in advanced manufacturing. They briefly described ORNL’s work with Caterpillar spin-off company, Solar Turbines, to develop 3D-printed turbine blades for gas turbine engines, an interest of Granholm. “Love it. I love it,” she said.
During the virtual visit, ORNL staff shared the lab’s efforts to grow its pipeline of diverse talent through a variety of programs such as the newly established University of Tennessee Oak Ridge Innovation Institute, which has 150 graduate students and 136 joint faculty. UT-ORII will develop scientists and engineers who are experts in their subject areas capable of interdisciplinary innovation.
ORNL shared connections with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and minority-serving institutions; fellowship, postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate positions; and STEM programs for K-12 students and educators. Zacharia was recognized by the National GEM Consortium with its Corporate Leadership Award and ORNL hosted 31 GEM interns this summer.
The virtual tour concluded at Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge to highlight an example of K-12 STEM outreach. Students shared their experience working on the RamSat project with ORNL mentors along with STEM teachers as they designed, built and deployed a small satellite. Years in the making, that satellite is now gathering photographic data about regrowth of forests following the catastrophic 2016 wildfires around Gatlinburg.
Granholm complimented the students for their fortitude. “Thank you so much for sharing and for sticking with this project and for being an example. This is really so cool,” she said. “You stuck with it. Great leadership, great brains, great results.”
In closing, leadership including Stacey Patterson, vice president for research, outreach and economic development at the University of Tennessee; Mark Peters, executive vice president of laboratory operations at Battelle; and Johnny Moore, DOE ORNL Site Office Manager, thanked the secretary for her time and attention.
“As a site manager working for you and the Office of Science, it is exciting here, the research and development and field deployment topics we discussed,” Moore said. “(This is) made possible through your leadership and the support of the departmental programs, most notably (the) Office of Science.”
Granholm reiterated her promise of a future visit. “This was a total delight, and I’m coming back, in person,” she said.
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.