News Release

Story tips: For the birds, fresh twist on heat, upcycling plastics and probing for COVID particles

Peer-Reviewed Publication

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Bioenergy – For the birds

image: Planting native grasses such as the bioenergy crop switchgrass can restore habitat for birds like this Eastern kingbird. view more 

Credit: Chris Lituma/West Virginia University

Bioenergy – For the birds

An analysis by Oak Ridge National Laboratory showed that using less-profitable farmland to grow bioenergy crops such as switchgrass could fuel not only clean energy, but also gains in biodiversity.

Researchers examined segments of land in the Midwest responsible for a loss of approximately $110 million per year from 2013 to 2016. If about 3% of those areas were converted to switchgrass, they could generate about 7.6 million dry tons per year of plant material for use in biofuels and bioproducts.

Growing native grasses could also help birds, increasing species diversity by up to 8% according to models developed by ORNL’s Jasmine Kreig.

“Finding ways to grow crops for economic benefit that also help restore habitat for grassland bird species is a win-win,” ORNL’s Henriette Jager said. “This is an opportunity to achieve both renewable energy and conservation goals.”

The findings are published in a special issue of the journal Biological Conservation.

Media contact: Kim Askey, 865.576.2841,


Caption: Planting native grasses such as the bioenergy crop switchgrass can restore habitat for birds like this Eastern kingbird. Credit: Chris Lituma/West Virginia University


Materials – Fresh twist on heat

A discovery by Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers may aid the design of materials that better manage heat. The team observed that atoms vibrating in a twisted crystal drive winding energetic waves that carry heat, like a corkscrew drives a cork from a bottle.

“The structural helix puts a spin on the waves,” said ORNL’s Raphael Hermann. He and his colleagues used neutron scattering to observe wave behavior inside a twisted crystal. Then, ORNL’s Lucas Lindsay wrote rules for the wave behavior – that is, angular momentum conservation – into a model that ORNL’s Rinkle Juneja has since applied to more than a dozen materials.

“New understanding of twisted systems helps us determine how heat moves in them,” Lindsay said. “Using this knowledge, we are now searching for materials that better carry heat away in microelectronics or block heat, like in a thermos, to keep your coffee hot or your beer cold.”

Media contact: Dawn Levy, 865.202.9465,


Caption: ORNL researchers observed that atomic vibrations in a twisted crystal result in winding energetic waves that govern heat transport, a discovery that may help new materials better manage heat. Credit: Jill Hemman/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy


Sustainability – On the upcycle

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers determined that designing polymers specifically with upcycling in mind could reduce future plastic waste considerably and facilitate a circular economy where the material is used repeatedly.

Polymers, found in single-use plastic applications, contribute to landfill waste. One way to eliminate their disposal is through upcycling, which transforms plastics into high-value products. Conversion processes like pyrolysis and gasification make reuse possible. However, this can be costly because of the challenges associated with a plastic’s composition, processing history and reaction temperature.

In a study, researchers concluded that while continuing to develop plastic recycling technologies remains critical for reuse, designing virgin polymers simplifies the upcycling process in the long term.

“Substances that stabilize polymers could be developed to minimize or even eliminate the need for presorting plastic mixtures,” ORNL’s Xianhui Zhao said. “This would allow for more widespread conversion at a much lower cost.”

Media contact: Jennifer Burke, 865.414.6835,


Caption: In a study, ORNL researchers concluded that the most direct path to plastic upcycling is through designing polymers specifically for reuse, which would allow the material to be converted into high-value products. Credit: Andy Sproles/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy


Coronavirus – Probing for particles

A study by Department of Energy researchers detailed a potential method to detect the novel coronavirus on surfaces. Scientists from Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Ames national laboratories used an atomic force microscope to measure how easily particles of the virus’s spike protein attached to surfaces, a property called adhesion energy.

Funded by the Coronavirus CARES Act, the research also examined ways to chemically identify viral particles collected at the nanoscale level – about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

“Our findings show this is a viable potential method to gauge infectious amounts and could lead to a greater understanding of whether particular surfaces carry greater risk for transmitting the virus,” said ORNL’s Ali Passian, one of the study’s authors. “The method can be applied to detect other viruses and could be used to develop antiviral materials for surfaces.” – Matt Lakin

Media contact: Scott Jones, 865.241.6491,


Caption: Researchers used an atomic force microscope to test how easily particles of the novel coronavirus cling to certain surfaces, a property known as adhesion energy. Credit: Ali Passian/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

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