Scientifically Super Sites

Oak Ridge laboratories are favorite destinations for a lot of researchers

November 6, 2006

OAK RIDGE - Doug Scalapino, a theoretical physicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, allots about four weeks each year to visit other facilities to advance his scientific studies.

He's trying to explain aspects of high-temperature superconductivity, such as an interaction that causes electrons in certain materials to glue together instead of repelling each other.

Over the course of his lengthy career, Scalapino has anchored his research at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and other beloved institutions.

"This is now where I come," Scalapino said as he stretched his lanky frame in a comfortable chair at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences.

During his stay, Scalapino occupies a third-story office at the newly opened nanoscience center - a $65 million facility that boasts plenty of tools to characterize and synthesize materials at a near-atomic scale. But CNMS is not the only thing that attracts Scalapino to Oak Ridge.

He and his research teammates are using ORNL's Jaguar, a Cray supercomputer that can perform trillions of calculations per second, to explore their theories of how things work. He's also anxious to have scientists test some of the theories with experiments at the newly constructed Spallation Neutron Source, a $1.4 billion complex that's just gearing up for action.

The CNMS was the first of five nanoscience research centers funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. It's part of a strategy to make the U.S. more competitive in this super-hot area of science.

Some of the Oak Ridge staff - including Linda Horton, the director - moved into the 80,000-square-foot facility months ago, even as construction continued around them. That proved helpful as they tweaked the interior design, reduced the number of offices and opened up more conversation areas for scientists to share thoughts and generate ideas.

The nanoscience center is next door to the Spallation Neutron Source and actually adjoins the main office complex for SNS researchers.

That arrangement makes it easy for visitors to use both facilities. Researchers can prepare samples of newly engineered polymers and other materials at the nanoscience labs and evaluate their structures and properties with neutron-scattering experiments at the SNS.

Mike Kilbey, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Clemson University, is on a year's sabbatical and spending his time at ORNL.

Kilbey has been coming to Oak Ridge for a few years as part of the "Jump Start" program, which was designed to help U.S. researchers get going on nanoscience projects. He's one of the few scientists already taking advantage of both the nanoscience labs and the SNS.

The Spallation Neutron Source is still in its early test phases and probably 18 months away from full-scale research operations, but Kilbey is working there during the setup of instruments.

It's not exactly research, but the work will give him an intimate understanding of the neutron-scattering instruments and might ultimately help him design better experiments.

"It's a trade-off," Kilbey said.

The CNMS is stocked with $20 million worth of specialized equipment, such as electron beam lithography and a scanning electron microscope with polarization analysis.

Lian Li, physics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, uses the special microscope to look at the way electrons spin in material samples - some of which he prepared at his college lab, some of them fabricated here. He's trying to create new materials that would integrate magnetism into semiconductors, a project with potential to improve computers.


A worker fitted in a "bunny suit" enters the photo-lithography research area, one of the "clean rooms" at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. The suit is designed to reduce skin flakes or other body particles from contaminating the facility.

"The idea is to combine two properties with one material," Li said during a recent visit to the Oak Ridge facility. He previously did his experiments at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Scientists want to manipulate and control the properties exhibited by materials at the nanoscale and then extend that understanding to produce functional materials.

A 10,000-square-foot enclosure on the first floor of CNMS is maintained as a Class-1000 "clean room," which means it has fewer than 1,000 particles per cubic foot of air.

That's much cleaner than a hospital operating room, and scientists and technicians using the facilities must wear "bunny suits" to cover their skin and minimize contamination from skin flaking. No makeup is allowed.

"You'd be surprised how much stuff falls off your skin," said Tony Haynes, user coordinator at the nanoscience center.

Stray particles could create havoc when fabricating materials on the scale of a nanometer - a billionth of a meter.

"Dust particles are a thousand times larger than that," Haynes said. "It's like a big boulder sitting on top (of the sample). So it's not just a contamination issue. It actually breaks the structure."

CNMS is a national user facility, as are many of ORNL's other research facilities, and it's built to make visiting scientists - expected to grow from about 100 the first year to 250 in 2008 - feel right at home.

Joe Pickel is a chemist on the Oak Ridge staff and part of a research group dedicated to creating new breeds of polymers.

"Using stringent procedures, we can make polymers behave the way we want them to," Pickel said.

That could mean a class of polymers that behave like metals and conduct electricity but retain the flexibility of plastics.

"The ideas out there are just amazing," Pickel said during a tour of the chemistry labs. "We're working the area of electronic polymers, polymers for solar applications, polymers for biomaterials - such as drug-delivery devices. We're doing a lot."

Some of ORNL's polymer chemists have become expert glassblowers, creating their own chemical reactors and equipment to support their experiments.

These glass instruments - some of them quite elaborate - are needed to purify chemicals and keep them free of oxygen or anything that might cause them to react until it's time to combine the different additives.

"Actually, for the type of polymerization we do, you pretty much have to be a glassblower," Pickel said.

So what if you can't get the hang of it? "You become a theorist," one chemist joked.

Theory, of course, is a big deal.

"We have a very large theory group because in every aspect of nanoscience research, there is a role for theory to play in interpreting the results and leading the science forward and understanding the phenomena," Horton said. "We really wanted to emphasize that strength of ORNL in our nanoscience center."

Scalapino said the Oak Ridge laboratory offers the best of everything.

"It's an incredible facility that's been built here. The people range from biology all the way over to where I am, a theoretical physicist," he said "What draws me here is partly the experimental work that goes on and will go."

The theorists want the experimentalists to test their theories, and the experimentalists want the theorists to help them interpret their research.

"It's a two-way street," Scalapino said. "That's the real part of being here - the communication. You can read people's papers and you can write a paper, but it's a huge difference when you sit down and talk with them."

The Californian said there's something special about ORNL that goes beyond the nano and the neutrons and the teraflops.

"You're talking with an extremely satisfied user. This thing is really working," Scalapino said. "There's a real difference coming into this lab and coming into some of the other labs - in terms of the people who let me in through the gate, people who get you the badge, people who set up your computing. I don't know if it's just being in the South, but there's a certain gentleness or welcoming. There's an attitude that makes people very comfortable."

Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329.

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