This year, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) marks 75 years as a research institution. Located in Oak Ridge, TN, ORNL is the largest US Department of Energy science and energy laboratory, conducting basic and applied research to deliver transformative solutions to compelling problems in energy and security.
During World War II, calutrons at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant were used to separate electromagnetically two-uranium isotopes to produce bomb-grade material for the Manhattan Project. Following the war, the lab evolved into a research laboratory to channel the power of the atom to peaceful purposes. In the decades after the war, ORNL became a leader in developing nuclear reactor technology, and applying its expertise to what was perceived as an almost unlimited slate of applications.
ORNL used the calutrons to produce hundreds of stable isotopes for numerous applications; many of these enriched isotopes were the starting materials for the preparation of radioisotopes. Radioactive medical isotopes were produced for treating cancer, heart imaging, imaging tumors, and reducing metastatic bone pain. Non-medical applications include electronics, nondestructive testing, explosives detection, and atomic clocks for geopositioning and cellphone systems.
For the past 75 years, many technologies developed at ORNL have been transformed into practical products and services.
In 1954, ORNL partnered with Argonne National Laboratory to create a computer with the fastest speed and largest data storage capacity of any computer in the world. Called the Oak Ridge Automatic Computer and Logical Engine (ORACLE), this machine helped scientists solve problems in nuclear physics and radiation effects.
In the 1960s, researchers developed the first method to produce carbon foams, which have been used as high-temperature furnace insulation. Also, a process was commercialized for making carbon-carbon brake discs that give airplanes better stopping power.
Beginning in the late 1970s, ORNL devised remotely controlled dexterous servo-manipulators for teleoperation techniques that enabled work in radioactive zones too hazardous for people. Since then, remote manipulation technology has been applied to nuclear fuel reprocessing, military field-munitions handling, accelerators, fusion reactors, and environmental cleanup projects.
A nonsurgical laser technique for determining whether esophageal tumors are benign or cancerous was developed in the 1990s. This optical biopsy sensor uses an endoscope, optical fibers, laser light, and algorithm to gather and compare fluorescence patterns in the esophagus (which differ for normal and malignant tissue).
The first ORNL-developed alloy to be commercialized was Hastelloy-N, a nickel-molybdenum-copper-iron alloy that resists aging, embrittlement, and corrosion from exposure to hot fluoride salts.
Software tools were developed that help companies rapidly identify manufacturing problems that cause semiconductor wafer defects, thus reducing defect generation, increasing product yield, and cutting costs.
ORNL helped design radiation shielding for Moon-bound astronauts, scoops for collecting Moon rocks, and boxes to hold them on Earth.
The discovery of ion channeling led to accelerator-based programs to introduce ions into materials. Ion implantation was found to improve the surfaces of many materials including alloys used to make artificial hips and knees.
In the 1980s, ORNL made computational breakthroughs using a new “parallel computer” that harnessed several thousand processors working together to solve scientific problems.
In the 1990s, ORNL developed the world’s most advanced underwater acoustic measurement system. The US Navy uses this technology to determine whether its next-generation submarines will operate at a level of quietness required to escape detection by enemy subs.
The MicroCAT scanner, an X-ray computed tomography system for mapping internal defects and organ changes, is used for cancer, genetics, and drug discovery research.
ORNL developed optics to significantly improve the brightness and intensity of X-rays for analyzing materials structure. Crystal-bending methods that focus 20 times more radiation than alternative optics are now used in the world’s most sophisticated X-ray facilities.
Improved versions of the “lab on a chip” devised at ORNL in the early 1990s are being commercialized today. The matchbox-sized chips contain several channels — thinner than human hair — that connect reservoirs, all of which are carved into miniature glass plates using microfabrication technologies.
Advanced Materials Research
ORNL is a world leader in research that supports the development of advanced materials for energy generation, storage, and use. The lab’s core strengths are in three main areas: materials synthesis, characterization, and theory.
Materials science research also benefits from ORNL’s integration of basic and applied research programs and strong ties among computational science, chemical science, nuclear science and technology, neutron science, engineering, and national security. This allows development of a variety of new materials for energy applications, and their transfer to industry.
ORNL has developed advances in ways to improve materials processing to increase the performance of new materials while reducing processing cost. These advances have resulted in a portfolio of materials and technologies in the nuclear, automotive, and structural materials industry.
ORNL is improving analytical tools used to characterize the structure and function of advanced materials, including electron microscopy, scanning probes, chemical imaging, and a variety of neutron scattering capabilities.
Clean Energy Research
Scientists and engineers at ORNL deliver scientific discovery and technical breakthroughs in sustainable transportation, renewable power, and energy efficiency. Clean energy research focus areas include advanced manufacturing (see sidebar), biological systems, buildings technology, climate and environmental systems, electricity and the smart grid, fossil energy, renewable energy, sensors and controls, and transportation systems.
Computing and Computational Sciences
ORNL is home to the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, providing the open scientific community access to America’s fastest, most powerful supercomputer, Titan. ORNL supercomputers have decreased time to solution, increased the complexity of models, and improved realism of simulations of subjects ranging from development of advanced materials, to cleaner combustion of fuels, to understanding climate dynamics.
Technologies developed at ORNL are transferred to private sector partners in order to enhance the nation’s economic security. ORNL offers licensing opportunities aligned with a company’s technical and business goals.
Contact the ORNL Technology Partnerships Group at