In the early 1980s, the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory was just beginning to explore transfer of technology from the lab to industry. Now it's the norm, and one historical example illustrates the long-term benefits.
It began almost 40 years ago.
Reg McCulloch worked for ORNL from 1975 to 1985 in the Engineering Technology Division, then located at DOE’s nearby Y-12 National Security Complex. His research focused on the design and development of fuel rod simulators so that simulated fuel rod tests could be conducted outside a nuclear reactor core. He was also working to reduce the size and enhance the effectiveness of thermocouples—instruments used to measure temperature.
McCulloch hunkered down in nuclear research. He knew ORNL's work held big benefits for industry, and DELTA M Corporation was born in 1983. The name derives from the measurements its instruments provide. “Everything we do is measured by a delta,” McCulloch said, referring to the term used to designate such differences: “Delta temperature, delta voltage or other deltas.”
DELTA M’s first products used cutting edge research and new manufacturing techniques that were part of McCulloch’s work at ORNL.
“The technology to make heater assemblies and thermocouples to measure temperature was not well known,” said DELTA M President A.D. White. “Reg and his team developed techniques for fabricating these devices that didn’t exist before”
Since DELTA M’s inception, not only has the company grown from McCulloch and two other techs from ORNL—Ralph Dial and Ken Finnell—to over 20 employees, it has also further evolved ORNL-based technology. The thermocouples McCulloch worked on are now routinely manufactured and more robust than earlier versions, resulting in a less expensive and more effective nuclear tool.
Additionally, the thermocouples are used in DELTA M’s gamma thermometers, another endeavor reminiscent of McCulloch’s ORNL days. While other companies are trying to make them, McCulloch said, “We’re the only company that has been able to make a successful gamma thermometer.”
Last July, DELTA M started licensing agreements with General Electric for the gamma thermometers, and the company anticipates fully turning over the technology to GE in early 2015. Unlike current nuclear reactor power measurement instruments, a DELTA M gamma thermometer can be left in a reactor’s core to constantly measure power because of its ability to withstand extremely high temperatures.
Exploiting this feature, GE plans to install a large number of gamma thermometers into a reactor core with each thermometer outfitted with multiple thermocouples. The thermometers provide vital in-situ calibration that produces a 3-D map of a reactor’s core power. Visualizing a reactor in this way has both power and monetary benefits.
“If you can do this accurately, you can increase the average core power by 1 or 2 percent, and that’s worth millions of dollars a year for each reactor," McCulloch said.
Licensing a product such as the gamma thermometers to a large company was one of the motivating factors for starting DELTA M in the first place, McCulloch said. And while McCulloch and White are enjoying the company’s current success, they continue to look to the future.
“Diversification has been the key to us surviving. We keep looking for unique opportunities and try to figure out how to get our products in those marketplaces,” White said.
McCulloch and White want to ramp up their industrial flow and level switch and meter sector, the third of DELTA M’s business concentrations and the only one in which they operate worldwide. Both are looking to retire in the near future but want DELTA M to remain in East Tennessee and turn into a “good-sized company doing thermal-based mass flow.”
McCulloch still gets the chance to work with ORNL on occasion. Frequently, DELTA M makes custom thermocouples for ORNL and Y-12. Customization isn’t something large thermocouple manufacturers are usually willing to do, McCulloch said. They’re also building a leak detector for the Spallation Neutron Source, a DOE Office of Science user facility that attracts researchers from around the world, and have installed flow meters there. Additionally, DELTA M shared a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with ORNL in the 1990s. McCullough speaks fondly of his experiences with ORNL.
“We’ve brought people in to help us and we’ve sold products to ORNL. It’s been a very good relationship over the years,” McCulloch said, adding, “We couldn’t have possibly done it without ORNL. They deserve a lot of credit for this.”
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit http://science.energy.gov/.
- Chris Samoray, (865) 574-0595, July 31, 2014