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Story tips from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, September 2003

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

HOMELAND DEFENSE -- Spotlight on mass spec . . .

Miniaturized user-friendly mass spectrometers could play a huge role in safeguarding the nation, and about 150 of the world's best mass spectrometrists will be in Knoxville this month to showcase the latest in the field. The workshop, scheduled for Sept. 16-18 at the Marriott Hotel, is focusing on raising the awareness among the broader scientific community, policy makers and people whose jobs involve improving national security. For many homeland and national security purposes, researchers will have to make mass spectrometers more affordable and highly portable. Only then can mass spectrometers expand their already important use in the laboratory to include field use by security personnel, first responders and soldiers. Conference coordinator and Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist Gary Van Berkel hopes the event will "foster interaction among those involved in helping chart a course forward for the use of mass spectrometry in homeland security." In addition to numerous lectures from distinguished scientists, the event will feature products of several companies and demonstrations of technologies. For additional information, visit the Web site at
[Contact: Ron Walli, 865-576-0226;]

NUCLEAR -- Next-generation fuel . . .

Particle fuel coating technology from Oak Ridge National Laboratory could play a big role in deployment one day of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. The reactors and the fuel they consume would minimize the production of long-lived radioactive waste and would increase the burn rate. One of the hurdles involves developing a fuel coating process that takes the technology of the 1970s forward four decades. "Our job is to make the best particle fuel ever made,' said Rick Lowden, principal investigator and a researcher in ORNL's Metals and Ceramics Division. Researchers also must increase the energy density to meet the needs of next-generation gas-cooled reactors, which will utilize fast neutrons, helium cooling and a closed fuel cycle. This type of reactor is widely regarded to be inherently safer than conventional reactors, partly because the fuel consists of a kernel of fissile/fertile materials surrounded by layers of carbon and silicon carbide ceramic for protection and containment. Coated particle fuel has additional benefits such as its abilities to operate at high temperatures, to achieve high burn-up and to survive accident conditions.
[Contact: Ron Walli, 865-576-0226;]

ENVIRONMENT -- Life beneath the snow . . .

Microorganism populations blanketed by Colorado's snow are a lot more active and diverse than previously thought, according to findings by ORNL's Christopher Schadt, lead author of a paper published in the Sept. 5 issue of Science. The discovery is significant because it should help scientists gain greater insight into decomposition rates, carbon cycles and perhaps the roles of individual fungi in these processes. Surprisingly, tundra soil -- about the top 10 centimeters -- reaches its annual peak number of active microorganisms beneath the snow. This is significant because snow-covered microbial metabolism is an important biogeochemical sink for nitrogen, and the subsequent release of microbial nitrogen in the spring is a major contributor to high primary productivity during the short growing season in the tundra. Schadt and colleagues at the University of Colorado and San Diego State University also found that fungi account for most of the biomass, which undergoes significant seasonal changes. And the researchers discovered that about 40 percent of the fungi in their samples were previously unknown. DNA sequencing enabled them to make the identifications.
[Contact: Ron Walli, 865-576-0226;]

SUPERCONDUCTORS -- Changing voltage the cool way . . .

High-temperature superconducting transformers can perform the necessary change in voltage in a transmission system without the 23,000 liters of oil in conventional transformers. This reduces the weight of a power transformer from about 75 tons to about 45 tons for a 30 megavolt-ampere (MVA) unit, the size typical of a substation in a medium-sized city. What's more, eliminating the oil permits the electrical insulation system to continue to function during certain overload, or high-stress conditions, without any loss of transformer service life. Oak Ridge National Laboratory and industrial partners Waukesha Electric Systems in Wisconsin and SuperPower in New York are testing the world's first 5 MVA prototype at the Waukesha factory. According to Waukesha, low-cost, second-generation high-temperature superconducting wires like ORNL's RABiTS (rolling assisted, biaxially textured substrates), a patented technology and winner of an R&D 100 Award, will be required if high-temperature superconducting transformers are to be a big player in the upgraded electric grid of tomorrow.
[Contact: Ron Walli, 865-576-0226;]


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