Earlier this week, I asked Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason about the state of the lab and to reflect on Fiscal Year 2015, which concluded Sept. 30. I posted some of his thoughts on the current budget situation, and he’s got his fingers crossed there.
As regards the past year at ORNL, Mason cited several highlights:
CORAL: Last November, the next-big-thing in supercomputing was announced in Washington, the Collaboration of Oak Ridge, Argonne and Lawrence Livermore National Labs, setting the stage for ORNL to get a super-duper from IBM/NVIDIA that will succeed the lab’s Cray Titan system that’s the nation’s most power machine for science research and the second fastest computer int he world. “We’re excited about the potential embodied in that announcement,” Mason said.
PRESIDENT and VP, TOO: President Obama and Vice President Biden both came to Knoxville in January to celebrate advanced manufacturing and much more, announcing the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. “That was a big deal highlighted by the Shelby Cobra, which attracted a lot of attention in additive manufacturing and carbon fibers,” Mason said. Indeed, the Cobra has been on a national tour ever since.
VIRTUAL REACTOR: In late January came the announcement that the Consortium for the Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), an innovation hub at Oak Ridge, was being renewed for another five years of funding. “Which is testament to the very important work that was done over the first five-year award,” Mason said. According to the lab director, the second term will allow the researchers to focus attention on boiling water reactors, instead of just the pressurized water reactors that have gotten most of the attention. “Which means we’ll have full coverage of the light-water reactor fleet that provides 20 percent of our electricity in the U.S. — it’s actually about 30 percent in the TVA region,” Mason said. “That’s certainly important.”
ET ECON: Mason said there had been “some nice economic development wins” over the past year, with companies choosing to locate in the region because of opportunities to partner with ORNL. That has been enhanced by the RevV program with the state of Tennessee, he said. “That’s a new tool the state has to build that connection between the lab and prospective companies or companies that are here and looking to expand and solve their technology challenges.”
FIVE MORE YRS: Mason cited the Department of Energy’s decision to extend the UT-Battelle management contract for another five years. “Which is good news — stability in uncertain times,” he said. With a chuckle he added, “At least (it was good) for a small number of us. It didn’t necessarily affect everyone at the lab, but I’m personally pleased with that.”
NUCLEAR IRAN: The ORNL director was proud that the Oak Ridge lab — and its sister labs around the complex — played an important role in supplying expertise to the team negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. It drew kudos from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was a big part of the negotiating team. “Very significant work that was really built on decades of experience and expertise that existed across the complex on the relevant technologies,” Mason said. “In our case, in part enrichment and isotope separation, an important of the discussions, making sure that the agreement was reached had the desired outcome in terms of limitation of the proliferation potential of the facilities there and also developing the technology for safeguards and verifications.”
SNS SCIENCE: Although there were some problems, especially last fall, Mason said the Spallation Neutron Source had a “great year.” He noted that the most recent target (where neutrons are produced) not only set a record for longevity but also sustained during high power operations (1.3 megawatts). “As a result,” Mason said, “we’re cranking out the science, lots of high-impact publications and physical journals. And that’s certainly exciting.”
WORKING WITH OTHERS: Oak Ridge National Laboratory got some international attention with a collaborative project called Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy (AMIE), working with a slew of partners ranging from Clayton Homes locally to Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It was a big deal, especially the final, futuristic result — a 3D-printed vehicle and building that shared energy sources — on display on ORNL’s front lawn. Industry Day was an opportunity to show off the lab’s possibilities, Mason said. “I think that’s hopeful,” he said.
LAB SAFETY: On a final note, Mason said FY 2015 was a good year operationally for Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “We improved our safety performance,” he said. “We had some challenges the year before, and we think we’ve taken some actions to put those behind us.”
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