commentary (2006-18)

The Spallation Neutron Source is coming of age

Riding Beams to the Future

by Barry Henderson

It may be possible to overstate the significance of the Spallation Neutron Source in this region’s hi-tech future, but it’s much easier to underestimate its impact.

Last Friday, April 28, the first test of the $1.4 billion federal project’s ability to generate a stream of neutrons was conducted, and it passed. Lots of good things can happen around here, once its research begins to bear fruit.

The SNS, seven years in construction at Oak Ridge, is ahead of schedule and on budget, and its mission to greatly improve scientists’ ability to understand the structure of a wide variety of materials is set to begin. Envisioned are whole new technologies in energy, telecom, manufacturing, transportation and biotech, among other fields.

The SNS is eight times more powerful than any other spallation source in the world, and its advanced instrument technology will give research scientists a net improvement in measured neutron beam intensity in factors of 50 to 100. What that means is that this installation provides an immense step upward in capability, according to officials at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Operators of the SNS, ORNL collaborated with six other Department of Energy labs in its creation.

When it is fully operational, its materials science benefits could be immeasurable. Lighter aircraft may be developed as a result. Lighter and more efficient batteries and fuel cells and time-released and specific organ-targeted drugs are foreseen, using information gleaned from spallated-neutron research.

ORNL administrators are anticipating that about 2,000 researchers from the United States and abroad will be studying new materials’ applications that may arise from the neutron-enhanced study of materials’ structures and dynamics. Wherever traditional materials are used, their characteristics and uses may be re-examined and perhaps enhanced or improved.

Such developments virtually assure spin-off industries, and the Oak Ridge-Knoxville area should be ideally situated for siting those industries.

Ethanol from Coal and Wastes

The company with the technology patents to produce ethanol from coal and from waste products, including garbage, paper and plastics, has the support of Congressman Zach Wamp. It’s in his district that the cleaned-up K-31 uranium enrichment building resides in what’s called Heritage Center, with more than a million square feet available under one roof. It also got a favorable review earlier this week from Sen. Lamar Alexander, who reiterated the notion that the United States is “the Saudi Arabia of coal” and extolled the process’ potential to produce a cleaner, more usable energy form in ethanol.

The timing of the loan-guarantee request, with gasoline prices spiking, would appear to be excellent, and the efficient production of ethanol from coal resources could eventually provide up to half of U.S. gasoline consumption, according to company projections. That may be optimistic, but another plus to the process the company offers is that it does not involve any burning and is non-polluting.

Imagine a Library in Every Home

Next month, Knox County’s Imagination Library will put in an order for more books for more than 10,000 children whose parents have registered for the program here. The number of kids puts Knox behind only Davidson County in registrations for the program—nationally—as the concept is rapidly spreading nationwide. Knox County has more than 23,300 eligible children, so it has about 40 percent of full participation, and it’s shooting for 100 percent.

It was embraced by Gov. Phil Bredesen less than two years ago, when he saw the success of Dolly’s project in Sevier County. He created the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation to match funds raised locally to support the program. It costs only $2.25 per child per month to deliver an age-appropriate book to each kid’s household.

It is not only a great bargain for parents, it is a wonderful exercise in early childhood development. Parents reading to their pre-school children is one of the most important factors in ensuring a child’s successful learning experience as he or she grows and goes on to school. It cannot help but elevate the state’s education profile and improve the skills and general understanding abilities of the state’s workforce in the future.

Imagination Library is, quite simply, the best idea that has emerged in the field of education in my lifetime. And I’ve been around a while.