Is ORNL at a Tipping Point?

The proposed DOE budget could mean more funding for Oak Ridge

The impending federal budget confrontation between the Obama administration and newly empowered congressional Republicans could represent a tipping point for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

If President Obama gains approval for the 12 percent increase to $29.5 billion that he has recommended for the Department of Energy in fiscal year 2012, it would mean additional funding for clean energy and other research initiatives in which ORNL is at the forefront. If the Republican majority manages to impose anything approaching its resolve to cut DOE funding back to its fiscal 2008 budget of $24 billion, it could mean research retrenchment and reductions in ORNL's 4,800 person workforce.

DOE is the primary source of ORNL's $1.65 billion in annual funding as matters stand. And DOE's proposed budget for the year ahead includes provisions for creating three new research "hubs" in energy-related fields. ORNL's director Thom Mason believes that, as the largest multi-purpose national laboratory in the land, it is well positioned to compete for one or more of these hub designations.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama singled out ORNL for its role as one of DOE's three existing hubs—heading a consortium that's addressing ways to make nuclear power plants operate more efficiently. "At Oak Ridge National Laboratory," Obama said, "they're using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities." (He also cited California Institute of Technology, which is the hub for research aimed at deriving fuels from sunlight. A third one is addressing more energy efficient building designs.)

ORNL's Jaguar supercomputer, which is described as the most powerful one available for scientific research in the U.S., looms large in the quest for "next-generation reactor designs," based in large part on computer simulations involving a "virtual reactor."

Supercomputing prowess is also one of the reasons Mason believes "we have a lot going for us" in gaining designation as one of three new research hubs DOE is seeking to launch: namely, one addressing batteries and energy storage. "This is an area where we already have a lot of research going on both in the fundamental science side of things and in applications work in terms of interfacing with industry in producing and manufacturing of battery materials with improved yields," Mason says.

One particular aim, in collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory and IBM, is "developing lithium air batteries capable of powering a car 500 miles on a single charge," to quote an ORNL news release. That, of course, is five to 10 times the range of the electric cars now going into production and would no doubt catapult the U.S. over Obama's stated goal of having a million EVs on the road in this country by 2015—if such a date were feasible for commercial application of the lithium air technology. (Don't hold me to explaining how it works in relation to the lithium ion batteries in use today). But ORNL's principal investigator in this field, Jack Wells, is cautionary. He reckons it could be 2020 at the earliest "before all the technical, engineering challenges [to widespread deployment of a lithium battery] are overcome."

If DOE gets its way, each of its hubs are due to receive about $25 million in annual federal funding for five years. And Mason believes ORNL has "strong credentials" for each of the other two hubs that are now in the offing—one for "smart" electricity grid technologies and the other for "critical materials" aimed in large part at replacements for the so-called rare-earth metals for which China is the world's dominant supplier. Mason says, "We can make a credible contribution to any of these. So it really becomes a question of picking the right partners so you get on the right team."

ORNL is already getting comparable DOE funding as the leader of a BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) that also involves many partners. Its mission is to achieve the scientific breakthroughs needed to make cellulose ethanol cost-effective, with a national goal of replacing 30 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption with biofuels by 2030.

Last month, in conjunction with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, BESC heralded a genetically modified strain of switchgrass that increases ethanol yield by a third, and Mason believes that new strains of yeast used in the fermentation process can further increase yields and lower cost. "It looks like the results from BESC are indicating that once you scale up to industrial scale you can be cost competitive with $3 a gallon gasoline without a subsidy," Mason says. At present, all forms of ethanol get a 45-cents-per-gallon federal subsidy. But there is mounting bipartisan congressional resistance to its continuation; in any event, Mason says, "subsidization is not a sustainable business model."

The rub, as with the 500-mile car battery, is how long it may take to get to commercial-scale production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires extensive field trials of genetically modified crops (as a protection against environmental hazards) before they can be grown commercially. And Zeng Yu Wange at the Noble foundation says these trials may take six years or more. It then takes newly planted switchgrass three years to mature. So achieving its commercial viability could take a decade.

Given these long lead times and problematic outcomes, one can debate the wisdom of the stepped up federal spending on such research—especially at a time when mounting federal deficits and indebtedness are pushing the nation toward the brink of financial peril. Obama would offset his recommended increase in DOE funding by getting rid of a purported $3.5 billion a year in federal tax breaks and other subsidies to the petroleum industry. But his prior calls for their elimination went unheeded even when the Democrats controlled Congress.

Nonetheless, as pricey and chancy as it may be, I believe that increased research, especially for clean energy, is an investment the nation can't afford not to make.

Corrected: ORNL's supercomputer is named Jaguar, not Kraken, which is actually the University of Tennessee's supercomputer.