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Disruptive Materials

Driving innovation in the 21st Century

When Titan is available to users in 2013, it will likely be the fourth time ORNL has hosted the world's fastest computer. The first It has been more than 100 years since the invention of the solar cell, electric car and rechargeable battery. Fossil plants operate at only two-thirds their optimum efficiency. There is still no consensus on the disposition of spent nuclear fuel. None of these technologies is close to meeting its full potential, not because the underlying physics or chemistry make it impossible, but due to the scarcity of materials that can extend performance to ultimate efficiencies and extreme environments.

ORNL Review cover

Advances in materials have enabled technological revolutions since the beginning of civilization. It's why materials lend their names to Ages. Stone, bronze, iron and steel, nuclear. With each successive Age, a new material disrupted established technology. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones. The Information Age owes its existence to silicon-based microelectronics, not incremental improvements in vacuum tubes. There is a disruptive material behind virtually every technological innovation.

This issue of the Review focuses on disruptive materials research at ORNL. Materials research has always been a distinguishing competency at the Laboratory, broadly underpinning our science and technology work. The importance of materials was recognized early with advances that enabled progress in nuclear reactors, nuclear fuels and isotope production. Materials for chemical separations led to nuclear fuel reprocessing and more recently to the large-scale separation of nuclear waste. Advanced alloys from ORNL can be found in most fossil and nuclear power plants, and new high-temperature and radiation-resistant alloys offer the potential to substantially improve the performance of these plants. Advanced composites developed at ORNL have enabled centrifuge technology used to enrich uranium, and new carbon fiber composites are being applied to the development of lightweight materials for transportation. ORNL advances in nanoscale materials are transforming the development of advanced batteries, membranes, magnets and renewable energy technologies.

Many of these advances—alloys, nuclear fuel reprocessing, isotopes, separations, advanced composites— have already led to technological developments with impacts measured in the billions of dollars. The articles in this Review provide a glimpse of the next wave of disruptive materials research at ORNL—materials that enable precision measurement of the neutron, fibers that separate uranium from seawater, accident-tolerant nuclear fuels, graphene technology, and new innovations in materials design and development accelerated by nanoscale science and computer simulation.

From the beginning, ORNL recognized and nurtured the transformative potential of materials by co-locating basic and applied materials research and connecting this research to technology outcomes. The result is a large, highly integrated materials enterprise widely acknowledged as one of the best and most impactful in the world. Sustaining leadership in materials research, and taking advantage of ORNL's scientific expertise across multiple disciplines, is a high priority. With new capabilities in nanoscale and neutron science, as well as advanced computing, the future of disruptive materials research at ORNL looks bright.

Jim Roberto
Associate Director for
Science and Technology Partnerships
Oak Ridge National Laboratory