In 1942, Oak Ridge, Tenn., was selected as the site for part of the Manhattan Project, a research and development program that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. Actually, there was no town of Oak Ridge at that time. A residential community built to support the many workers who would move to the area was built on the slopes of Black Oak Ridge. Hence the community of Oak Ridge was formed.
Today as you drive through the Tennessee Technology Corridor, you can easily identify two components of the area. The first is the Y-12 National Security Complex. Surrounded by heavy security, Y-12’s emphasis is the processing and storage of uranium and development of technologies associated with those activities. Most notably, the facility maintains a nuclear weapons stockpile.
A few miles away is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ORNL is the largest science and energy national laboratory in the Department of Energy system. Its scientific programs focus on materials, neutron science, energy, high-performance computing, systems biology and national security.
Just as the United States Enrichment Corp. operates the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a partnership between companies Babcock and Wilcox, and Bechtel Corporation operates Y-12. A partnership between the University of Tennessee and the Battelle Corporation runs the national lab.
In March, two members of the EntrePaducah Technology Advisory committee and I attended a two day conference at ORNL called “Bridging the Gap.” What gap needs bridging you ask?
Since 2003, scientists at Oak Ridge have secured 292 patents for research performed at the labs. The patents are connected to the various focus areas mentioned above. The goal of inviting entrepreneurs and economic development professionals was to help bridge the gap between innovation and commercialization.
Over the course of the conference, scientists are asked to give brief presentations on their projects. In addition to condensing years of research into a 15 minute presentation, scientists had to use terms that non-scientists could understand. For instance, looking over my notes from the conference I deduced that “Transparent and Durable Super hydrophobic Thin Film Technology” could be “Rain-X on steroids.” Seriously, the technology is a super-clear, super-waterproof coating that could be used in manufacturing or for weatherproofing sensitive electronic devices.
While I didn’t understand much of the science that results in these miracles, the end user products were clear. The concept of “active, composite material for the prevention and treatment of fouled surfaces” was actually material created from reactive nanomaterials that could protect catheter users from infections.
Other technologies on display were related to solar power production, devices that charge electric vehicles wirelessly, and high-performance battery technology.
Not all of the technologies presented were materials-based. ORNL hosts the third fastest, most powerful computer in the world. The Jaguar computer’s capacity is listed at 1.759 petaflops. Four information-based technologies were introduced that had been developed through the lab’s super-computers.
One of the projects was actually developed with national security in mind. The researcher’s thesis is that “data is eternal,” but ways to extrapolate the data are still in their infancy. His project proposes to mine massive amounts of data and process it toward the goal of detecting trends, such as potential terrorist activity. The technology could also extend to data mining for financial trends, social media trends and other fields.
Another information-based project involved real-time environmental monitoring. The audience witnessed a real-time example of energy usage throughout various neighborhoods at different time and seasonal intervals.
The environmental monitoring project was perhaps the best example of why there needs to be a constant dialogue between the scientific community and the business community. Although the scientist who developed this program presented fascinating data on energy use, the question throughout the room was, “Who could you sell this to?”
The project lacked a strong value proposition at that moment, but you knew wheels were spinning among the entrepreneurs in the room. At some point, there will be the magic marriage of innovation and commercialization and the gap will be bridged.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory has 115 active technology licenses in the private sector. That means115 patented technologies are now in the hands of entrepreneurs who hope to take to market the next big thing. Our region is home to entrepreneurs and engineers, many of them nuclear energy-related, who would find technology at Oak Ridge (or any of the national labs) to be familiar.
Rather than stare at the blank wall of uncertainty, I would challenge those talented people to look ahead at bridging the local gap between innovation and technology. If you need help, EntrePaducah is at your disposal.
In many respects, Oak Ridge and Future City aren’t that far apart.
Terry Reeves is the concierge for EntrePaducah, a joint effort by Paducah and McCracken County governments, the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce and Paducah Economic Development to foster small-business growth. Contact him at 270-443-1746 or treeves@entre- paducah.com.