Story tips from Oak Ridge National Laboratory

November 07, 1999

Story ideas from ORNL. To arrange for an interview with any of these researchers, please call Ron Walli of Communications and Public Affairs at 423-576-0226.

BIOLOGY -- Spinach and chips . . .

A prototype spinach biochip built at ORNL sets the stage for the development of a new class of video imaging equipment, ultra-fast switches and potentially efficient and economical solar power generators. The biomolecular electronic chip, which uses proteins from spinach, has, in principle, a faster response time than a silicon photodiode. Because of a special chemical treatment discovered at ORNL, the spinach proteins orient themselves correctly on a flat gold surface. When light is shone on the spinach proteins, they act as a photo battery by generating about 1 volt. In the absence light, the proteins behave like diodes by conducting an electrical current in one direction and blocking it in the other. [Contact: Eli Greenbaum]

CHEMISTRY -- New tool for archaeologists . . .

Artifacts -- arrowheads, spearpoints and such -- made of obsidian, or volcanic glass, are found throughout Africa and Central America. Archaeologists over the years have had methods to date them, but their accuracy has been questionable, which also threw into doubt the age of the sites where the materials were found. Researchers at ORNL have developed a new dating method using secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS). The new technique, which they call ODDSIMS, for Obsidian Diffusion Dating, has been accurately tested with artifacts of verifiable age and could alter theories about the age of some ancient sites. [Contact: David Cole]

BIOLOGY ­ 10 billion for dinner . . .

If projections of a world population of 10 billion by 2050 are accurate, the agricultural community will face a major challenge. A study by ORNL and University of California-Davis notes that availability of sunlight is a primary limiting factor in crop yields. Defining the potential for crop production from sunlight is a basic issue in plant biology, and it¹s at the heart of the paper, which will be published in the November-December issue of Crop Science. While current agriculture science could feed 10 billion people, other factors limit food supply. These include the use of grain to feed animals and inefficient international food distribution systems. [Contact: Jeff Amthor]

ELECTRONICS -- New smart surfaces . . .

ORNL researchers are creating new kinds of "smart" nanocomposite surfaces on what are otherwise inactive or "not-so-smart" materials. One of the products of their research is a patented material that could help protect sensitive optical surveillance systems -- like those used in international safeguard satellites -- from accidental damage or even sabotage. The smart surface can be formed, for example, on a single crystal of aluminum oxide by using an accelerator to implant vanadium and oxygen ions and create embedded vanadium dioxide precipitates. These ion-implanted surfaces can be used to make a "smart window." If intense light from a powerful laser were to strike the nanocomposite surface, the embedded vanadium dioxide particles would rapidly heat up, quickly transforming the window into a metallic mirror. Then, instead of letting the intense incoming light go through and damage delicate detectors on the other side, the smart window would reflect it back in the direction of its source, thereby shielding the internal optical components in a satellite or other surveillance system. [Contact: Lynn Boatner]

ENVIRONMENT -- Reigning in uranium . . .

To help keep radioactive uranium on site at Department of Energy sites, ORNL researchers are finding biological ways to alter the chemical form of uranium. The idea is to force uranium dissolved in contaminated water to precipitate out, or sink into sediments, where it is trapped. Researchers are modifying bacteria so they can efficiently free up phosphorous from an organic compound introduced into the soil. The free phosphorous moves into contaminated water, where it combines with the uranium to make insoluble compounds. [Contact: Tony Palumbo]

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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