Oak Ridge National Laboratory - Research Programs

Research Programs

ORNL conducts research and development activities that span a wide range of scientific disciplines. The laboratory's major research areas are described briefly below.

  • Neutron scattering - ORNL is home to two of the most advanced neutron scattering research facilities in the world, the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor.

The Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) is a recently completed accelerator-based neutron source that provides the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world for scientific and industrial research and development. With its eventual suite of up to 25 best-in-class instruments, SNS will give researchers detailed snapshots of smaller samples of physical and biological materials than previously possible. The diverse applications of neutron scattering research will provide opportunities for experts in practically every scientific and technical field.

The 85-MW High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) provides one of the highest steady-state neutron fluxes of any research reactor in the world. HFIR fulfills four missions: isotope production, materials irradiation, neutron activation, and neutron scattering, which is the focus of this report. The neutron scattering instruments at HFIR enable fundamental and applied research into the molecular and magnetic structures and behavior of materials. HFIR has 15 instruments planned or in operation. A new cold neutron source installed during a HFIR refurbishment in 2006–2007 greatly enhances the reactor’s research capabilities, particularly in the biological sciences.

  • High-performance computing - The National Center for Computational Sciences (NCCS) provides the most powerful computing resources in the world for open scientific research. It is a research environment that supports advances in understanding how the physical world works and using that knowledge to address national and international concerns. The NCCS was founded in 1992 and is managed by the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The Center is home to two massively parallel computer systems manufactured by Cray. Jaguar, the more powerful system, is devoted to open scientific research, has a peak performance of 1.759 petaflops and is the world's fourth fastest system. To support its concentration of computing power, the NCCS has installed high-speed fiber-optic networks to expedite data movement, a scientific visualization center that enables researchers to analyze their simulation results quickly and comprehensively, and a high-performance data archiving and retrieval system.

NCCS hosts only those projects capable of producing groundbreaking results. Each year a few research efforts that require enormous computing resources to realize their promise are given allocations of computing time that reach as much as several million processor-hours. Such unprecedented levels of computational power are key to investigating areas, such as designing fusion reactors that could provide carbon neutral, sustainable energy; engineering proteins to provide new therapies for diseases or release energy from biomass efficiently; studying climate change; and designing new materials with specialized properties.

  • Nanotechnology - Basic nanoscience research at ORNL emphasizes discovery of new materials and phenomena and the understanding of underlying physical and chemical interactions that enables prediction of the composition and properties of next-generation functional materials.
  • Biological systems - ORNL's initiative in complex biological systems draws on programs in bioenergy (including the laboratory's new BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) dedicated to the study of cellulosic ethanol), comparative genomics, structural biology, and computational biology and bioinformatics. This initiative focuses ORNL's expertise and facilities in a wide range of biological fields related to the challenges of observing and understanding the functioning of complex biological systems.
  • Energy - ORNL is a major center for research and development on energy production, distribution, and use and on the effects of energy technologies and decisions on society. Clean, efficient, safe production and use of energy are goals for research and development. At ORNL, unique facilities for energy-related R&D are used both for technology development and for fundamental investigations in the basic energy sciences that underpin the technology.
  • Materials science/Advanced materials - Scientists at ORNL are involved in studies ranging from fundamental research to the latest applications of virtually all classes of materials. ORNL's unique strengths in materials synthesis, processing, and characterization are applied to all areas of emphasis. Thousands of guest scientists come to ORNL each year to make use of its world-class facilities.
  • National security - ORNL provides federal, state and local government agencies and departments with technology and expertise to support national and homeland security needs. This technology and expertise is also shared with industry to enhance America’s economic competitiveness in world markets.
  • Chemical sciences - ORNL conducts both fundamental and applied research in a number of areas, including catalysis, surface science and interfacial chemistry; molecular transformations and fuel chemistry; heavy element chemistry and radioactive materials characterization; aqueous solution chemistry and geochemistry; mass spectrometry and laser spectroscopy; separations chemistry; materials chemistry including synthesis and characterization of polymers and other soft materials; chemical biosciences; and neutron science.
  • Electron microscopy - ORNL's electron microscopy program investigates key issues in condensed matter, materials, chemical and nanosciences.
  • Nuclear medicine - The laboratory's nuclear medicine research is focused on the development of improved reactor production and processing methods to provide medical radioisotopes, the development of new radionuclide generator systems, the design and evaluation of new radiopharmaceuticals for applications in nuclear medicine and oncology.
  • Physics - Physics research at ORNL is focused primarily on studies of the fundamental properties of matter at the atomic, nuclear, and subnuclear levels and the development of experimental devices in support of these studies.
  • Population - ORNL provides federal, state and international organizations with a gridded population database, called Landscan, for estimating ambient population. LandScan is a raster image, or grid, of population counts, which provides human population estimates every 30 x 30 arc seconds, which translates roughly to population estimates for 1 kilometer square windows or grid cells at the equator, with cell width decreasing at higher latitudes. Though many population datasets exist, LandScan is the best spatial population dataset, which also covers the globe. Updated annually (although data releases are generally one year behind the current year) offers continuous, updated values of population, based on the most recent information. Landscan data are accessible through GIS applications and a USAID public domain application called Population Explorer.

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