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New Economy, New Playbook: Part 6

Fri, 12/10/2010 - 8:23am
Paul Livingstone

What specifics discoveries or breakthroughs has your organization made that embody the spirit of innovation? Please describe the support for these technologies your organization has had for sponsor or collaborators? Finally, please describe your funding situation.

Moderator (Livingstone): What specifics discoveries or breakthroughs has your organization made that embody the spirit of innovation? Please describe the support for these technologies your organization has had for sponsor or collaborators? Finally, please describe your funding situation.

Jih-Fen Lei 250Lei: I’ll answer the last question first, the funding profile. I read somewhere that for a healthy organization; you probably want to invest 10% of your funding or budget into R&D. And I will tell you that NASA is nowhere near there. In the last couple of years, the funding for R&D has been poor, like [Soileau]. had been saying before. But for this administration, there is an interest in restoring the funding for R&D, I think in general, but also for NASA. If the budget is approved, I think we probably will see 10% of the funding put in R&D for NASA. There’s a long way to go with budget process, however, so we still don’t know whether we will get that funding increase or not.

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In terms of collaboration, like [Hawsey] and [Finney] said earlier, DOD has also been an important partner for us in terms of the cost share collaboration/partnership because of the joint interest we have in the technology areas we’re working on; both in aeronautics and space. We learned a long time ago that we can join forces and co-fund the area we are both interested in.

And the Department of Energy (DOE) has now become an important partner for us in addition to the Department of Defense (DOD), obviously in the energy area, especially in alternative energy, power generation, energy storage and power management.

As for your questions about what technology is going to be making an impact. For us, obviously, propulsion is going to be very important. We want to defy the distance. We want to get to places, and we want to go faster. The propulsion technology that we have today is just not going to cut it. So that’s a big investment that we’re making, and if it pans out, it will make a huge impact.

In telecommunication, we’re talking about high data rate communication. With all the information we need to get, how can we increase information and data transfer with an order of magnitude increase in high data rate communication? Also, the wireless communication area: we will be communicating without wires anywhere and everywhere.

Robotics is another area of huge interest for us. You can’t go for exploration without robotics. There’s already a lot of innovation being done, but it really is how you can do robotic exploration remotely with the control and mobile complexity that you would need to have productivity like a human.

And I think [Funsten] touched on the area of materials, lightweight materials based on nanotechnology. Everything needs to be smaller, lighter and with multi-functionality for us if we want to go further, and with less power consumption. These are the several key interests we have and have made significant advancements.

M.J. Soileau 250Soileau: One innovation that might be kind of interesting that touches on the first question is something very pedestrian, a ceiling fan. They’ve been around for a long time. Before there was electricity even, people were making ceiling fans, cutting out pieces of wood, putting them on a shaft, and turning them around by water wheel or whatever means you had available.

One of our guys in our building sciences department of the solar energy center was having a picnic in his backyard, and his father-in-law, a WWII pilot, looked up at the ceiling fan and said: “Isn’t it strange that they have flat blades on ceiling fans. We haven’t had flat blades on our airplanes for a long time”. So Danny Parker, contacted the people that made the human powered airplane; they had to have absolutely maximum efficiency because the energy available was from the person peddling to drive that airplane.

So we teamed with the Gossamer Explorer people and came up with Gossamer Wind Ceiling Fan that use 40% less energy for the same amount of air movement than the conventional ceiling fan. So here’s one that’s a great partnership, and where need meets an idea.

We have a company called OptiGrate (Orlando, Fla.) that we spun out that has new types of optical components. Old science fiction fans like me remember 2001 where Hal had these little things of glass that made up his memory. Well, you store information inside bulk glass. OptiGrate distributes the optical components within the bulk of glass and make all sorts of interesting things from filters to resonators to a whole new parameter of space for the optics and laser industry.

There’s another company we have that I think is kind of nice. It is the only matter/antimatter machine commercial enterprise in central Florida. It’s a company called Crystal Photonics Inc. (Sanford, Fla.) and what matter/antimatter machine do they make? Well, they don’t make the machine. They make the components for the machine. The machines are called PET scans, and the P in PET scan is positron, so that’s the antimatter that produces gamma rays that results in images being made with PET scans.

One of the more interesting technologies at UCF is called chloroplast technology. It’s a gene splicing technology that has shown a lot of promise in using tobacco plants to produce proteins that can be then refined into pharmaceuticals and enzymes that can be used to digest cellulose. That’s very broad applications of an idea that’s relatively simple minded to where you can trick the plant into producing up to 40% of its body weight into the proteins that you want to use for an application.

For the funding situation, unlike my colleague from Sanford-Burnham, I find the state of Florida not so generous in supporting research here lately and starving us to death.

But the faculty has been very creative in solving that problem themselves. Until the last two years, we’ve seen a compounded double digit increase in the amount of extramural support at the university that slowed down as we’ve saturated the faculty with their workload and also with the slow down of hiring new faculty, etc. Hiring and keeping good faculty is the biggest variable, of course. As was mentioned, the stimulus program goes away we will experience more problems. Some of our base university funding for the last two years was from stimulus Even though our politicians complain about stimulus left and right, mostly right, the fact is they’ve used the stimulus funds to balance the budget.

And so next year, we’re going to have an additional huge budget cut. So I think what I find in terms of funding and in this whole issue is that we’ve got a lot of creative people. Yes, the pipeline is a problem. Yes, getting good talent is a problem. Faculty members beg for money to support more work for themselves. They’re so ravenous if there’s funding available. They’re full of ideas, ready to go. Lots of folks will work themselves to death if you just give them a little bit of money to support the work. So the funding situation, I think, is critical. The uncertainties in that, I think, are scary. We’ll see what happens next.

William Elias II 250Elias: In terms of the technologies that would be most readily recognizable to the widespread public right now, the chief one coming out of Argonne is our battery portfolio. We have licensed advanced battery materials to several major battery manufacturers, and we anticipate, for example, that Argonne’s technology is going to be contained within the hybrid electric vehicle of a major U.S. automobile manufacturer when it rolls off the line in December. So our lithium-ion battery technology is a very significant development and one that is going to continue to increase in importance. And we’re looking at developing lithium-air technologies, as well, because, again, energy storage is a significant need for the nation and the world.

Some other technologies that we have commercialized include some predictive modeling methodologies. We have a startup company that was created in conjunction with the University of Chicago that can monitor power generation equipment, jet engines, and other systems and predict with a great degree of accuracy, sensitivity and precision when a component or a system is going to fail. This was technology that was originally developed for use in the nuclear industry that is being applied across a wide range of markets now.

One additional startup coming out of Argonne focuses on nano-crystalline diamond technology, which enables the creation of ultra-hard and wear-resistant coatings for various types of applications. And that is a successful startup as well.

So we are continuing to innovate. We are continuing to commercialize. In terms of what other technologies are going to make an impact, Argonne has significant capabilities in catalysis, in materials design and development. Our simulation and supercomputing capabilities are such that there are a number of different industries that can benefit from them in unexpected ways. A consumer products company even modeled soap bubbles using our simulation capabilities. So we expect modeling and simulation to make a significant difference in the pace of change and the development of new technologies.

We also have the Advanced Photon Source, which is the nation's brightest X-ray source for general research in the basic sciences. A coalition of pharmaceutical companies has sponsored a beam line there to examine small molecules and other potential pharmaceutical compounds, and there are multiple ways in which industries can benefit from the concentration of facilities like the APS and the other capabilities we have at Argonne.

With respect to external collaboration, we have a number of industry sponsors. And in terms of federal collaboration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense are working at an increasing level of collaboration with the Laboratory.

As to funding, the trend has been good this past couple of years because of Recovery Act funding. But looking ahead, not just short term, we see some significant challenges for the federal government with the termination of the Recovery Act funding, as well as the deficit issues that everybody is aware of. That’s going to be a challenge for us all.

Stephen Gardell 250Gardell: With respect to the research in our organization, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute has undergone a bit of a transformational change over the last few years. We have an outstanding reputation in terms of doing basic discovery research to elucidate mechanisms of disease, especially in the areas of cancer and stem cell research. We’ve done that for many years, and we continue to do that very well. However, due to changing trends in the pharmaceutical industry, we have recognized important gaps which we aim to fill. Those gaps involve drug discovery and translational research.

With respect to the drug discovery, our Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics is one of four NIH comprehensive screening centers in the U.S. There we have implemented a technology known as ultra-high throughput screening, which allows us to use robotics, coupled with miniaturization of assays to screen hundreds of thousands of compounds to discover drug leads and then optimize those leads in our medicinal chemistry and pharmacology labs. The infrastructure that we have in place is among the best, if not the best, in the nonprofit world.

Translational research refers to technologies and expertise for advancing the discoveries which emerge from the laboratories to evaluate their potential clinical utility. Again, this is now a very important part of our mission. Our commitment to this mission is evidenced by the people we hire, the technology cores that we establish, and the partnerships that we form.

In terms of external collaboration: Who has become a valuable partner? I want to cite one example which we believe is unique and has provided us with a blueprint that we aim to replicate at each of our disease-focused research centers. A partnership was formed between Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and Florida Hospital to create a Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes.

Florida Hospital is a one of the largest nonprofit healthcare providers in the country. The partnership has built a bridge between the discoveries that emerge from Sanford-Burnham laboratories and the patient oriented research at the Florida Hospital. This relationship is an important part of the solution for accelerating the advancement of basic discoveries with the goal of evaluating their potential clinical utility.

In terms of funding, we continue to look to the NIH for the major source of our funding stream. Over the course of the last five years, we’ve done well in competing for NIH funding. The dollars that we’ve obtained from the NIH has steadily increased over those five years. Will that trend continue in the future? Hopefully, but as a result of some of the belt tightening going on with respect to Federal funding, we are looking to other potential funding sources. Partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry and biotech, etc. are becoming more of a focus.

There are three metrics that we look at in terms of quality. The first metric is grant funding. We’ve already touched on that. Sanford-Burnham ranks #4 among independent research institutes in NIH grant funding. This is a testament to the quality of our ideas and research pursuits. The second metric with respect to quality is impact of our scientific publications. The Sanford-Burnham is very proud that we rank #1 worldwide in citations per publication in the area of biology and biochemistry according to Thompson Institute for Scientific Information. The third metric of the quality of our discoveries relates to business development opportunities. Over the course of the last few years, a number of interactions and partnerships have begun with the pharmaceutical industry, etc. The private sector has noticed the discoveries which have emerged from our laboratories and this has opened up opportunities for commercial research partnerships.

Robert Hawsey 250Hawsey: A couple of discoveries at NREL that might resonate would be an 2010 R&D 100 winner we’re celebrating tonight, the invention of a cost effective way to chemically etch silicon solar cells to produce what we call black silicon, an anti-reflective coating that reduces the reflection of sunlight to just 2%, compared to 5% reflection with conventional antireflection methods. Now, 3% less reflection doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re building a 100 or more megawatt solar farm, you can take that 3% to the bank and tell the bankers that you can actually produce that much more energy from the sun.

Another discovery that I think is potentially very important for this country is NREL invented what we call the “deep green” LED, a 562 nm LED that’s very close to the human eye’s peak sensitivity for green light. Why is that important? Because if you’ve been to your local big box retailer lately and tried to buy a white LED for your home, you’ll see that an average cost of $40.00 for the equivalent of a 60 watt bulb is beyond the reach of most Americans. This more efficient green light emitter has a potential to drive down the cost of LED lighting technology in this country and, therefore, reduce our commercial and residential building energy consumption.

I want to switch over to partnerships for a minute. We have a large number of valuable partners at NREL, large businesses and small businesses in wind, solar, bio-energy research, building energy research.

I thought I might pick one that’s near and dear to my heart because this company (the name of the small startup is Ampulse) chose to take a former R&D 100 award winning technology involving high temperature superconducting materials, and they decided they might be able to make a more cost effective photovoltaic cell using that same basic technology used to make superconducting wire. And so this company has decided to do just that in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and NREL. And they decided to use NREL as their research arm and are installing more than $2 million worth of capital equipment in our laboratory. They also have two-shift technician operation at our laboratory now. So talk about being linked arm in arm with an industrial partner. That’s certainly a good example out at NREL.

Regarding the quality of our discoveries besides the citation index mentioned earlier, another thing that we like to cite is: does industry really care about the technologies developed at laboratories like NREL? And a figure that continues to astound me, and I’ve triple checked it, is the fact that two-thirds of our active U.S. patents in photovoltaic technology are actually under license. That’s a rather remarkably high number and shows you the relevance to the industry of the photovoltaic discoveries that NREL has made.

Kevin Finney 250Finney: The funding for R&D at the production sites within the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] has steadily decreased over the last few years. So from a corporate perspective I would have to give kudos to my management because they’ve actually allowed us to increase the plant directed R&D budget to where we’ve got a really substantial and very robust program. The corporate support and the support with our local customer have been excellent in that respect. So even though the budget itself is nowhere near 10% of our annual budget—not even close—it is a good budget for us, and we hope to continue to grow that.

From an external collaboration standpoint, we, too, have a number of really great and valued partners. I’ll highlight the partner for our 2010 R&D 100 award. The University of North Carolina Charlotte is a long and valued partner of Y12, and it’s largely because our interests coincide on machining and metrology. So where you have a shared interest, you’re bound to have a good result in the partnership. And that particular partnership has been absolutely great for us.

Quality and new discoveries, we don’t concentrate much on volume, but we do concentrate on quality and a small number of discoveries. We’re an applied R&D organization, so a lot of times, we’re actually carrying forward some of the wonderful discoveries that come out of the national laboratories, and I’ll highlight a couple of those. High performance, high density low enriched uranium fuels for research reactors, important from a nonproliferation perspective, also important from a materials perspective. We have a limited quantity of highly enriched uranium in the United States and the better stewards we are of that material, the better off we all will be.

Also, that work is spilling over into establishing the U.S. capability for the production of medical isotopes. A lot of people are really oblivious to that problem right now, except for those people who have been trying to get treatment and found that we have a shortage of isotopes due to the Chalk River reactor problems up in Canada. So we’re working very, very hard to help establish that U.S. capability by working on the low enriched uranium target materials that will supply U.S. target production capability.

From a manufacturing perspective, we’re carrying forward some advancements. One such advancement from Oak Ridge National Laboratory is infrared heating and heat treatment of metals. Our own discoveries include microwave melting and processing of metals, machining technologies as I’ve mentioned, working with Argonne on electrolytic refining and direct electrolytic reduction of uranium, and the development of a low cost production method for carbon nanotubes.

And one that’s kind of an interesting idea that’s come out of our staff is the mitigation of tin whisker growth in lead free electronics. We’ve got a very new, novel method for attacking that problem, which I’m hoping within the next couple of years will land us back here at the R&D 100 awards.

Herb Funsten 250Funsten: As part of the NNSA, Los Alamos, as well as the other labs, can use up to 8% of their funding that they receive for internal R&D. And right now, I think at Los Alamos, we use 6.2%, which is pretty much the life blood of investment for the future of the laboratory as far as the expertise and capabilities are concerned. And it’s a fairly robust peer review program that drives a lot of innovation. I think there are some fantastic metrics as far as citation index and publications. About 25% of the peer-reviewed publications and patents at the lab come from this 6.2% of funding. It also helps fund nearly 60% of postdocs at Los Alamos.

We also win peer reviewed grants from NIH and NSF, and we get about $10 million a year through peer reviewed grants from NASA. And they contribute, also, to our S&T base. The types of external collaborations we have are very, very broad. One traditional area is with the oil and gas industry, in particular Chevron. We can model and develop new fluids and materials for operation at high pressures in extreme environments. So we’ve had a lot of collaboration of efficient oil recovery for a long period of time, and that continues now.

We’re also experiencing a lot of growth in global security. That’s trying to understand and assess the risks from across the world, and that includes energy and environment. Some of the key areas of innovation that we’ve had are imagery analysis, specifically looking at the data within an image and trying to pick out the relevant information. It’s a very challenging process because there is so much information that an analyst can never, within a lifetime, analyze all the images we’re getting now.

And that’s only increasing. So we’ve developed a lot of intellectual property in that area. It started with our nonproliferation program looking for nuclear threats across the world. We’ve now applied it to payloads on UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that have been deployed by the Department of Defense that provides instant video down to troops on the ground so they can see behind buildings before they go there. They can see approaching threats. So we’ve had a substantial impact there.

And now we’re applying it to try and understand and assess vegetation and plant physiology from satellite imagery. It turns out that plant mortality is a tipping point driver for understanding climate change, and so we now have a project that exploits this image analysis capability and further develops it in hyper spectral imaging to actually look at 2% changes in plant physiology on a global scale. This could be a very important component for the environmental security mission at the laboratory for the future.

Published in R & D magazine: Vol. 52, No. 7, December, 2010.

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