Story tips from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, August 2004

August 13, 2004

To arrange for an interview with a researcher, please contact the Communications and Community Outreach staff member identified at the end of each tip.

TRANSMISSION -- Grains of insight into the grid . . .

The way growing piles of sand behave -- with bursts of energy that result in large and small avalanches -- has served as a model for fusion researchers seeking insight into the way magnetically confined plasmas behave in fusion reactors. The same research into self-organizing systems has also lent itself to predicting the reaction of electric power grids to increasing power demand or system anomalies. One year after the northeastern blackout drew attention to their work, Oak Ridge National Laboratory fusion researcher Ben Carreras, David Newman of the University of Alaska and Ian Dobson of Wisconsin University are continuing their power grid modeling research. Instead of being strictly an engineering challenge, the researchers now see the nation's electric power grid infrastructure driven by a complex combination of variables as diverse as rising demand, conflicting subsystems and societal pressures. Without a broader understanding of the interaction of those forces, a sandcastle power grid will be hard pressed to accommodate the rising tide of power demand. [Contact: Bill Cabage, 856-574-4399;]

ENERGY -- More bang for the buck . . .

Spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors could be minimized and burn-up potentially doubled if Gamma Engineering's new silicon carbide-based cladding proves viable. Conventional cladding, the tubing that contains the enriched uranium that fuels reactors, becomes brittle and must be replaced - along with the fuel - every five years. If, however, Gamma Engineering's proprietary duplex material can be used instead, the refueling cycle could be extended to a theoretical 10 years. Information gained from tests at the High Temperature Materials Lab is helping determine the extent, rate and exact method of corrosion of the material. The goal is to learn whether the tubes, which consist of a silicon fiber-reinforced composite around a silicon monolithic tube, are sufficiently corrosion-resistant to withstand conditions in the high-temperature water used in reactors. Zia Faiztompkins, an engineer with the Rockville, Md.-based Gamma Engineering, is working with ORNL's Larry Walker, Michael Lance and Harry Meyer to answer that question. Funding is provided by the Department of Energy's offices of Nuclear Energy and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. [Contact: Ron Walli, 865-576-0226;]

BIOLOGY -- Good vibrations . . .

High-resolution computational simulations and advanced visualizations are enabling researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to identify and gain a better understanding of proteins. Until recently, protein complexes have been viewed as static entities with biological function understood in terms of direct interactions between components. Now, Pratul Agarwal and colleagues at ORNL are using the lab's Cheetah supercomputer and EVEReST 35 megapixel visualization facility to study protein function in far greater detail. "Based on computational simulations, we're seeing proteins as very efficient molecular machines that are dynamically active and where internal protein dynamics are closely associated with their structure and function," Agarwal said. This emerging view has broad implications for protein engineering and drug design. Using biomolecular simulations, Agarwal has identified a network of protein vibrations in the enzyme cyclophilin A., which is involved in many biological reactions. These include protein folding and intracellular protein transport. Cyclophilin A is also required for the infectious activity of HIV-1. Funding is provided by DOE's Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research. [Contact: Ron Walli, 865-576-0226;]
NOTE TO EDITORS: You may read other press releases from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or learn more about the lab at

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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