Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review

Volume 32, Number 1, 1999

Measures of a Successful National Laboratory

Without the ability to make measurements, humankind could not track time, make maps, and build and deploy weapons. We could not develop mathematical, musical, navigational, commercial, or administrative skills. We could not describe things precisely in terms of weight, length, and volume. We would still be relying on the medieval barter system because we would have no money.

Ever since Galileo’s experiments in the 16th century, scientists and engineers have greatly appreciated the importance of measurements. Many physical laws have been deduced from measurements (e.g., the velocity of light). Better materials and labor-saving, time-saving, and energy-saving devices could not be developed without measurements (e.g., the Wright brothers gathered wind tunnel data on airfoils to help them design an airplane they could fly). Computer models for making predictions about the physical and biological world are only as accurate as the measurements on which they are based.

Over the past four centuries, many measurement instruments were invented and improved upon for use by researchers, enabling scientific advances and the development of modern products. Since the 1940s when we built radiation detectors to monitor workers and equipment at the Graphite Reactor, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been involved in the development of new measurement technologies. Almost half of the 96 R&D 100 awards given by R&D magazine to Oak Ridge scientists (in recognition of the 100 best technical innovations of the year) have been for developments of new measurement devices and techniques.

In this special issue, we showcase the variety of “smart sensors” being developed at ORNL for many applications in the public interest. These intelligent measurement instruments that merge sensitive detection abilities with computing and signal transmission capabilities range from miniature detectors to electronic chips to remote-sensing technologies. The versatility of our array of smart sensors is a tribute to a hallmark of Department of Energy national laboratories—their multidisciplinary and multiprogram teams.

For future health applications, we are developing sensors to measure and transmit the body’s vital signs, determine whether esophageal tumors are cancerous, monitor brain injuries, diagnose lung disorders based on breathing sounds, and map dead tissue from burn victims. We are forging very small chips to help medical personnel diagnose diseases and develop drugs to combat them as well as to sniff the air for toxic gases and, with the help of microorganisms, detect pollutants in the ground. In the effort to reduce the threat of war and terrorism, we are devising remote-sensing techniques to detect land mines, biological and chemical warfare agents, and explosives at airports. Our work will enable authorities to gather or improve the quality of information needed to identify crime suspects. For the U.S. steel, textile, and semiconductor industries, we have developed measurement and inspection techniques that are increasing their competitiveness.

We are also developing advanced measurement techniques to help our researchers monitor the health and behavior of genetically altered mice and predict how global climate change might affect forest productivity. We are designing new instruments for the Spallation Neutron Source, a research facility proposed for ORNL by DOE. Results from this unique measurement tool for scientists and engineers are expected to improve our quality of life early in the next century.

Al Trivelpiece
Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory


ORNL and the Smart Sensor Revolution
By Dan McDonald

Hi-Tech for Health

Reducing the Threat of War and Terrorism

Incredible Shrinking Labs: Chipping Away at Analytical Costs

Cars, Clothes, and Computers: Help for Industry

Of Mice, Monitors, and Medicine

Hardwood for Hardwoods: Monitoring Effects of Global Change on Forests

New Measurements Using Neutrons: Benefits of the Spallation Neutron Source

Bytes Help Take the Bite out of Crime

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