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Story tips from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, June 2018

June 01, 2018

To arrange for an interview with a researcher, please contact the Communications staff member identified at the end of each tip. For more information on ORNL and its research and development activities, please refer to one of our media contacts. If you have a general media-related question or comment, you can send it to

Computing--Mimicking neurons

A direct brain-to-computer interface may be on the horizon, thanks to synaptic mimics created by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee. Based on soft materials, the mimics are synthetic junctures that transmit electrical impulses like nerve cells do. The researchers relied on resources at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences to fabricate ultra-thin membranes and embed them with biomolecules that transport ions in response to voltage changes. The synaptic mimics process and store information in the same location, unlike conventional computers in which information is continually transferred between a central processing unit and memory, which consumes a lot of energy. "Through experiments and modelling, we were the first to demonstrate that our synaptic mimics, when configured in neuromorphic circuits, emulate key functions of real biological synapses, such as computing, learning and remembering," said ORNL's Patrick Collier. The work was published in the journal ACS Nano. [Contact: Dawn Levy, (865) 576-6448;]


Caption: Computing building blocks of soft materials may someday directly interface with the brain, according to researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee. Credit: Joseph Najem, Oak Ridge National Laboratory/U.S. Dept. of Energy

Biology--Arctic insights underfoot

Digging into the Arctic tundra, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have uncovered new insights into how quickly microorganisms break down organic matter in warming Arctic soil--a process that releases stored carbon as carbon dioxide and methane. The team studied soil extracted with a hydraulic drill rig from beneath layers of snow in Alaska. They found that small molecules such as carbohydrates, amino acids and lipids degrade faster than other compounds, indicating chemical composition is key to the speed of molecular degradation and carbon release. This study is part of a larger effort to understand the structure and function of Arctic terrestrial ecosystems," said ORNL's David Graham. "Our team will ultimately incorporate this new data to improve existing Earth system models used to predict environmental change." The work, conducted with partners at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was published in Environmental Science and Technology. [Contact: Kim Askey, (865) 576-2841;]


Caption: As part of the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments Arctic project, scientists use a hydraulic rig to extract soil samples from the frozen soil in Utqia?vik, Alaska.


Caption: Soil samples like this one were examined at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory before and after thawing to determine how quickly molecules containing carbon are broken down by microbes.

Nuclear--Pass the salt

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a salt purification lab to study the viability of using liquid salt that contains lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride, known as FLiBe, to cool molten salt reactors, or MSRs. Multiple American companies developing advanced reactor technologies are considering FLiBe--the coolant for the lab's famed Molten Salt Reactor Experiment--as a reactor coolant or as part of the fueled salt within their designs. The new lab offers tools to make and purify the salt and perform corrosion testing, which are essential steps in qualifying MSR technologies for commercial use. "This is a foundational capability," said ORNL's Kevin Robb. "We've had significant advancements in materials since the MSRE, and this lab is a big step in helping industry move their next-generation MSR designs forward," ORNL plans to add a pumped FLiBe loop to further testing capabilities, including how new alloys, graphites and silicon carbons interact with the salt. [Contact: Jason Ellis, (865) 241-5819;]


Caption: ORNL's new salt purification lab offers tools to make and purify the salt and perform corrosion testing, which are essential steps in qualifying molten salt reactor technologies for commercial use. Credit: Carlos Jones/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Grid--Compact, powerful solar

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have designed new components for a solar power inverter that pack more energy into a smaller package, paving the way for more powerful and efficient solar installations. The devices convert the DC power generated by solar panels to the AC power required for the electrical grid. The solar inverter's air-cooled heat sink, designed via a machine learning algorithm and then 3D printed, siphons heat away from the device. The inverter also makes use of a silicon carbide power stage component to handle 50 kilowatts of electricity with up to three times volumetric density compared with standard inverters, all while converting power at 98.4 percent efficiency. "Using these technologies, we can push the temperature and frequency higher while limiting power loss during conversion," said ORNL's Madhu Chinthavali. Partners at National Renewable Energy Laboratory and University of Purdue are collaborating to further optimize inverter performance for solar and grid applications. [Contact: Stephanie Seay, (865) 576-9894;]


Caption: The solar inverter's power package features an air-cooled, 3D printed heat sink. The project is supported by the SunShot National Laboratory Multiyear Partnership program of the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office. Credit: Jason Richards/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy


Caption: ORNL's Madhu Chinthavali led a team who designed new components for a solar power inverter that packs more energy into a smaller package. Credit: Jason Richards/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Neutrons--Balance of power

Energy storage could get a boost from new research of tailored liquid salt mixtures, the components of supercapacitors responsible for holding and releasing electrical energy. Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Naresh Osti and his colleagues used neutrons at the lab's Spallation Neutron Source to evaluate the behavior of ions adsorbed on the external surfaces of the carbon electrodes and determine the right balance of two liquid salts that yields optimal energy storage potential. "We dipped carbon electrodes in the ionic liquid mixtures and exposed them to neutrons through a technique that provides fine energy resolution at the molecular level," Osti said. "We could see the ions attracted to the carbon would enhance the capacity depending on the balance of one ionic liquid over the other, which in this case was about 80 to 20 percent." The team published their results in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C. Next, they will apply voltage and study the ions' microscopic dynamics. [Contact: Sara Shoemaker, (865) 576-9219;]


Caption: Oak Ridge National Laboratory used neutrons to evaluate the behavior of ions adsorbed on the external surfaces onion-like carbon electrodes and determine the right balance of two liquid salts that yields optimal energy storage potential. Credit: Alejandro Gallegos/University of California, Ri

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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