Oak Ridge: First and unfazed


Linda Horton
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Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee broke ground on its Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS) in the summer of 2003. The $65 million center became the first of the Department of Energy’s five facilities to open its doors to users when it welcomed researchers from industry, universities and other institutions in late 2005. Seagate, Luna Innovations and NanoTek are among the companies that have already taken advantage of its lab and nanofabrication facility. In an interview with Small Times’ Candace Stuart, director Linda Horton discusses how the center builds off Oak Ridge’s existing strengths and capabilities, and how it will help the nanotechnology community grow in the near future.

Q: Why did Oak Ridge select nanophase materials as the focus of its center?

We chose nanophase materials because Oak Ridge has a number of strengths, including a very large program that focuses on bulk materials. We were recognizing that beyond thin films, beyond carbon nanotubes, beyond small things that are in nanoscience, there is also going to be, in the longer term, a lot of interest in functional materials that start building toward bulk structures. That was one of the drivers: recognizing that Oak Ridge has a very large materials science and chemical science program.

Q: Does the center also complement your existing facilities and capabilities?

All of the nanoscale research centers at the national labs play off of other capabilities and facilities. Our center is located on the site with the Spallation Neutron Source. Certainly the application of neutron scattering to nanoscience is one of the strengths that we’re building off of at CNMS. We’re also leveraging our electron microscopy capability. We have two other user programs that include electron microscopy as well as a very strong core research program in advancing electron microscopy and its techniques and applications to problems in materials science.

The other strength is in leadership-class computing. ORNL was successful in that competition, so we have one of DOE’s leading computing facilities in Oak Ridge. Because of that, it’s one of the strongest theory modeling and simulation programs of any of the nanoscience centers.

In addition to materials science and condensed matter physics, we also have a very strong chemical sciences division with expertise in polymers and catalysis, for example.

It really has brought together a lot of strengths and capabilities at the laboratory. If you look at nanoscience in general, it’s an interdisciplinary science. I’ve always said we have the chemists, the material scientists, the physicists, the mathematicians, the computer people, the engineers all involved in our nanoscience center, plus the biologists. I think there will be a growing emphasis in learning from biology and applying it in nanoscience.

Q: Can you give an example of something going on now at Oak Ridge where you’ve taken advantage of these numerous capabilities?

The Department of Energy funded initial user activities in 2004 and 2005, even though the facilities (were in construction), so it built on our existing facilities. We have a very strong program that builds on our carbon nanotubes research. We (are) taking polymer structures and including deuterium in place of hydrogen, which is beneficial to neutron scattering studies. In those programs we’ve had a half dozen user projects that have come specifically to work with us.

The theory program has been tremendously successful in the initial user areas. We’ve had a couple of high-impact publications coming out of that research.

Q: What are you learning from the neutron scattering capabilities?

The Spallation Neutron Source is not completed yet, so what we’re doing now is focusing on the development of the community and the instrumentation that will allow us to do nanoscience there.

Where we think we will have a high impact is looking structurally at magnetism. CNMS has a big program in magnetism and transport that is only now coming online because we needed equipment to get that program going. Neutron scattering is one of the best tools for looking at magnetism and for looking at polymers and polymer structures.

We think that new tools for growing multilayers - I call them thick thin films, a structure that has enough structure to get good neutron scattering information - will be very beneficial in understanding oxides.

Q: Is part of your goal to better understand these fundamental properties so we can commercialize them?

Yes, but the primary driver is the science. Having said that, the technology is following very rapidly. At CNMS we have experimental, characterization and theory programs that can work hand in hand. As the polymer people like to say, we have one-stop shopping. When someone comes in to do polymers research, we have a theory group working on polymers, characterization capabilities, microscopy, neutron scattering facilities, and those can all be brought to bear on people’s research.

Q: Has the center allowed you to expand your staff?

To date we’ve hired 12 new staff members. We’re advertising - this doesn’t include the post docs - and will hire upwards of 15 to 17 more between now and 2008. We’re doing international searches for every position. A little bit of an exception to that are some of the technical support roles. We’re doing some internal transfers as well. Post docs, we’re at 14 now. We’ll be going to probably 20 to 25.

Q: How do you choose what programs you’ll be working on, especially in the user facilities?

We have calls for proposals. We require that people submit a short proposal and we have a review committee. We send the proposals out for electronic review and get scores back. That’s the basis. All that information is on our Web site ( We get proposals from academia, industry and internationally.

Q: Are you working on any proposals now? Can you give me an example from industry?

NanoTek is a small company using our facilities. We’ve had a lot of companies visit, but we’ve decided we won’t do proprietary research until March while we’re getting things set up. Some companies are waiting to do proprietary research. Proprietary research is not free.

Obviously, when a user applies for time at one of these national user facilities it is with the requirement that the results get published in the open literature. That’s why the DOE makes it free. If an industry wants to keep their results secret, then we’ll have this flexibility to do proprietary research and still allow industry’s access to it, but allow them to keep the information.

Almost all companies (using other Oak Ridge facilities) find coming in to do non-proprietary research first is a good thing. In nanoscience we may see a little different paradigm. We may see because of the technological payoff that some companies may want to start in the proprietary mode. But we’ll know that better in our next call for proposals.

Q: How many projects do you envision you can accommodate at any one time?

In fiscal year ’06, the current fiscal year, we anticipate that we will have around 100 projects. By the FY ’08 timeframe we expect to be at 250. That’s limited by our budget and not what we think the demand will be. For our first call for this fiscal year we had three times as many proposals as we could accept.

Q: Are many of the proposals coming from the region or locally?

We have a lot of regional participation but we have a lot of national and international participation as well. For the ’05 user proposals, we have Israel, France, Germany; I’m not sure if there was one from Japan. We have a large number from the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Florida Atlantic - so regional as well.

Q: Do users need to be onsite or are there offsite capabilities?

The theory group has a mixed mode. Once the user relationship is established, they have a fairly easy time doing electronic collaborations. In general, we want users to come to the laboratory.

Having said that, for some polymer research, for example, where we’re doing a lot of synthesis, the synthesis process takes months. As our guys say, it is not even beneficial to a graduate student to watch a hood.

What we’re tending toward with that type of research is initial interaction where the research will be laid out and the synthesis will be started and then the users will come at the end to test their materials. We won’t require that we have the graduate student baby-sit the synthesis. I’m not a chemist, right?

It’s been a great learning experience. It’s a terrific job. I signed up for analytical chemistry in college, but when I looked at my schedule I decided that as thick as that textbook was - and as great as it would be (to use it as a platform on my seat) - that, maybe not. I wish now that I had not been so shortsighted, no pun intended.

Q: What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages to being the first center to open?

The advantages, of course, are being first. It’s great. We are able to hire people and get our user program off the ground. That has been very beneficial to the research staff and the users.

The downside is that we’re first. We were the first ones out, so we were always the first having some kind of review. The lessons learned got shared and we didn’t have them to start off with. I’ve been on reviews for every other nanoscience center, which has been great. I have learned a lot from this, as have others at our center. It’s been overall a positive thing to have been first.

The Horton File

Linda Horton calls her position as director of the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory “a great learning experience” that has allowed her to witness firsthand the benefits of interdisciplinary research and teamwork. She’s no stranger to either the role of leader or researcher, though. Horton also serves as director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences program on materials and engineering physics at Oak Ridge. Her research using electron microscopy to better understand materials such as diamond thin films has won numerous awards and led to more than 50 publications.