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2012 R&D Research Executive Roundtable: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Fri, 12/14/2012 - 11:25am

Changes in the R&D environment are driving research managers to look at different ways to support and grow their organizations.

Paul Livingstone:
Please introduce yourself.

William Peter:
I’m Bill Peter. I’m from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I’m the leader of the material processing and manufacturing group. We’ve got about 20 engineers and scientists that are looking at advanced manufacturing technologies to enhance materials and other properties we see at materials.

Livingstone:
How important are collaborations or partnerships with other organizations to the research and development process?

Peter:
I think it’s critical. Typically, we are not only working with one industrial partner, but rather working with the entire supply chain. So that as a technology or area of research is developed, we’re not working in a sandbox but actually able to prevent technology roadblocks, and transfer the technologies as easily as possible. Without the ability to transition our R&D to industry, the applied R&D would not be worth the value proposition, especially in the economic environment we’re in today.

Livingstone:
What key technologies introduced in the last 10 years have helped improve the R&D process?

Peter:
ORNL has three important areas that have contributed to our success—computational modeling, materials characterization tools, and additive manufacturing.

The computation tools and capabilities available today have made the R&D process a lot less labor intensive. Instead of initiating a project with 100 different trials, computation can bring the experimental matrix down to 10. The researcher can narrow down their focus to those parameters or relationships that are important to the process and focus R&D activities.

Advanced characterization capabilities, such as the spallation neutron source, have evolved far enough to truly understand the fundamentals of what is happening in materials as we process them or how they are affected as we put them into applications. The wide range of characterization tools and the experience of our expert R&D staff allow us to solve issues that have previously eluded scientists.

I will follow my third technology with an example. Additive manufacturing is the process in which one deposits material only at specific locations in which you want the material to be added. This group of technologies has been out there in different forms for over 20 years. However, over the last 3 to 5 years, advances in the equipment have allowed additive manufacturing to really take off. The area has greatly accelerated the time that it takes to take a concept and make it a realized component. In many applications, additive manufacturing can also allow the ability to build components as they could optimally be rather than limited based on machining practices. In our robotics R&D, we have taken the design and fabrication of robotic systems down from months down to days. This has also been realized in our activities in First Robotics. We had over 200 students at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility during last year’s First Robotics where the additive manufacturing was available for the fabrication of their robots. Students were able to virtually have instantaneous fabrication of components from new concepts they designed. Additive manufacturing is a pathway to getting more students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Livingstone:
What's on your wish list for improving the R&D process at your company? What don't you have that you would like?

Peter:
I have three items to discuss. I agree with the consortium approach. We are often called upon to work in precompetitive R&D. This can be a great opportunity for the nation to have large impacts across multiple companies, but can also pose problems since most of the companies have proprietary interests in mind, usually not fitting together with the other companies’ interest. A consortium approach can provide a better consensus for R&D.

The second item on my wish list involves the limited availability of qualified staff with interest in the area of applied R&D. Especially in the area of manufacturing.

The last item would be sustained commitment and funding to reach the initial goal of a project. Often, the U.S. develops a great technology, and we do not stay with the development of the technology long enough to fully implement the technology and capture the return on investment for the nation.

Livingstone:
How global is your organization, with regard to industry partners, clients, and suppliers?

Peter:
ORNL is an extremely global organization. We have citizens of more than 70 countries represented on our staff. Many of the companies we work with are international. As we continue to move into a global economy and more manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, we see more developments and technologies initiated outside the US.

ORNL is an extremely global organization. We have citizens of more than 70 countries represented on our staff. Many of the companies we work with are international. As we continue to move into a global economy and more manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, we see more developments and technologies initiated outside the US.

Livingstone:
How do you deal with the rapidly changing face of intellectual property? How do you find help/partners for development without risking your IP?

Peter:
We handle IP very well. We have some nice mechanisms that are set up for the various needs and IP concerns of companies. That could be working with an organization in a Work for Others contract where we become a part of their research arm, developing a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) where IP is negotiated up front with the partners, or user agreements that allow companies and universities access to our unique tools at the laboratory.

There is always room for improvement. And one of the areas that I have recently seen the most improvement is in the area of CRADAs. Often, IP negotiations prior to research can delay the initiation of a project. However, up-front contracts and IP agreements are the best manner in which to negate future problems or confusion. ORNL has accelerated the time it takes to go through this process. In one competitive area of research, ORNL completed 4 CRADAs in less than three months with four separate industrial partners.

Livingstone:
How do governmental rules and regulations affect your approach to R&D? What restrictions play the biggest role in your field of research, and how have you met the challenge of meeting them?

Peter:
I would like to discuss the area of competitiveness and fairness. One of the real issues that we get into is disseminating R&D to as many industrial partners as possible to enable large impacts to industry. Cost sharing can be beneficial in identifying industrial partners in a fair manner, but it can also limit the number of companies that benefit from the technology or science. In many cases, we should be identifying opportunities to develop R&D areas that may be precompetitive; areas where many U.S. companies could benefit. This becomes more important as R&D budgets shrink. The National Laboratories play an important role in enabling this research and helping to broadly disseminate technology.

Livingstone:
How is your organization involved with carbon sequestration?

Peter:
I believe this is a fantastic opportunity for Oak Ridge National Laboratory as we look at the various resources we have at the lab. Already, there is active research in biology, computation, and materials. The global carbon footprint and carbon emissions are something ORNL and DOE have studied for years. Carbon sequestration is an area that additional funding and focus are needed to enable our experts to create real opportunities and solutions.

Livingstone:
Describe the funding environment at your organization. Has funding increased, decreased? What are the prospects for the next year?

Peter:
Overall funding for us has decreased. Where I particularly have concern is when we get into the applied research areas, especially in the early to mid-range technology readiness levels. This is where science develops into technologies that industry can use, and will affect industry in three to ten years.

With that being said, I’m excited to see that there is a new emphasis on manufacturing. Recently, DOE funded a manufacturing demonstration facility (MDF) at ORNL that allows companies to evaluate new manufacturing technologies. The MDF is focused on additive manufacturing and carbon fiber composites, but there are other technologies that are also available. Companies have the opportunity to try a technology and see the benefits before they invest. This model excites me because it allows us to disseminate more of the advanced technologies, get companies interested, and bring back US competitiveness.

Livingstone:
What recent scientific breakthrough made you say 'Wow'? And why did it?

Peter: I was hoping you would ask about the technologies that make us go “Wow” and leave us on a positive note. There are quite a few technologies at ORNL that I am excited about, but I have limited the discussion to three. Earlier I spoke about additive manufacturing, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing this area. However, I do want to convey how this technology can impact manufacturing. The potential design tools and the concepts that are enabled around additive manufacturing get me very excited. We have already started to see the benefits this area of R&D can enable in the areas of aircraft, robotics, and biomedical. Weight reduction, optimized design, and hybrid systems are just a few of the benefits possible. It’s not going to replace all of manufacturing, but I believe it will have a huge impact.

The second technology is in the application of superconducting magnets. This technology was an R&D 100 Award winner a couple years back, and has continued to advance. We have always looked at the manufacturing of materials as a process of heat and beating materials to make the shapes and components desired, and to modify material properties. Magnetic field processing gives us this whole new approach to material processing, and the modification of properties. We can change the equilibrium, kinetics, and microstructures of materials using this technology.

The last technology of interest is nanofermentation. ORNL has scientists looking at extremophiles, microorganisms that thrive in aggressive environments. They perform unique biological activities to cope with their environments, such as converting CO2 to carbon and converting salts to metal nanoparticles. The process is very analogous to the fermentation of beer. However, we are using salts and bacteria instead of yeast and grains. ORNL is utilizing nanofermentation to make low cost nanoparticles for applications spanning from magnetic materials to second generation PV to laser emitting diodes.

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