Chattanooga leaders hope to capitalize on Oak Ridge technological research, military resources

photo The Cray XK7 "Titan" is the world's most powerful computer for open science. It is housed at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility in Oak Ridge Tennessee.
photo Benedict Ubamadu stops to look at a large sign while touring the Y-12 National Security Complex's New Hope Center.
photo Carbon fiber is manufactured at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.
photo Seamless titanium objects that were "grown" in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.
photo Thom Mason, ORNL's laboratory director, speaks to nearly 50 Chattanoogans while on a tour of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.
photo Nearly 50 Chattanoogans take a tour of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Spallation Neutron Source facility during the East Tennessee Business Partnership event hosted by The Enterprise Center.

Fast FactsORNL and Y-12 sit on a 30,000-acre federal reservationMore than 12,000 people work at the facilitiesORNL has generated 292 U.S. patents since 2003 and has 115 active technology licensesY-12 provides highly enriched uranium used in the fabrication of fuel for reactors in the Navy's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarinesSource: ORNL, Y-12

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - Oak Ridge was a secret city during World War II when it was developing components for the atom bomb.

But a group from the Chattanooga area last week eyed ways to unlock the vast technology and resources of Oak Ridge National Lab and Y-12 National Security Complex. The aim is to leverage those into business ventures and other money-making opportunities.

"There is something really, really big going on here," said Tom Rogers, ORNL's director of industrial partnerships and economic development.

Still, it's not easy tapping into ORNL and Y-12, some say.

Wayne Cropp, the Chattanooga Enterprise Center's executive director, said getting technology out of Oak Ridge is difficult. That's one of the reasons the economic development group helped put together the daylong trip by about 50 business and political leaders to ORNL and Y-12.

"The U.S. Department of Energy needs to do better," he said, adding that his center helps "work through the maze."

Ron Harr, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, agreed.

"It's only 80 miles [from Chattanooga], but it seems a lot farther than that," he said.

Officials and business people hope that can change.

U.S. Rep Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who spent the entire day with the group, said there's a lack of knowledge of what goes on in Oak Ridge.

He noted there's a $3 billion annual investment at the federal sites. In addition, work has started on a $6.5 billion uranium processing facility at Y-12 that will take more than a decade to build. He termed it the largest ever construction project in Tennessee.

"There are countless opportunities for Chattanooga and Tennessee businesses," the congressman said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who also spent the day in Oak Ridge, said the technology there is a resource to grow entrepreneurship in the Scenic City.

"This allows us to have a greater dialogue back and forth," he said.


Chattanooga businessman Tom Decosimo said that Huntsville, Ala., has done well in leveraging nearby NASA and other federal facilities, integrating private enterprise and growing businesses and jobs.

"Oak Ridge is 15 to 20 years behind in focusing and taking what's going on and commercializing it," he said. "It's happening, but it's taking time."

ORNL Director Thom Mason said the lab is working hard to license technology and transfer new ideas to the marketplace.

"Manufacturing is a natural for Chattanooga," he said, citing the city's heritage of making things and opportunities where ORNL could make a difference.

Mason said Tennessee's high concentration of auto-related jobs and ORNL research in connection with meeting new federal fuel mileage standards offer chances for partnering with business.

Rogers said tech transfer is already happening and he cited a few examples. But, more is on the way, he said.

Rogers cited ORNL's new carbon fiber manufacturing facility which recently started operation making materials that are lighter and stronger than steel.

Volkswagen interest

Volkswagen, which has an assembly plant in Chattanooga, is a member of a consortium of 50 companies interested in what's going on with carbon fiber, he said.

The automaker has sent a staffer from its German headquarters in Wolfsburg to spend the next 18 months at ORNL, Rogers said.

Tim Walsh, chief executive of SimCenter Enterprises Inc. in Chattanooga, said his foundation-supported group that promotes commercial applications of technologies developed within UTC's SimCenter already is working with the Oak Ridge facilities.

"We hope to expand the relationship," he said.

Another potential way of parlaying the Oak Ridge facilities has to do with bettering the workforce.

Greg Vital, chief executive of Chattanooga-based Independent Healthcare Properties, said UTC and Chattanooga State Community College can better their graduates through ties with Oak Ridge.

"It's not only about economic development but about the workforce," he said.

Fleischmann said that the state has stepped up to help Tennessee businesses become certified to do business with the new uranium processing facility, or UPF.

"We're sitting the table for Tennessee businesses to do business in Oak Ridge," he said. Fleischmann said the target is a "Tennessee first" view when UPF officials do business with companies.

He added that because of the many old and obsolete buildings which still sit among Oak Ridge's federal facilities and its atomic legacy, there are hundreds of millions of dollars which flow there and offer business opportunities.

Rogers, however, reminded the Chattanooga group that ORNL is a large national lab and it takes time, patience and perserverance to work with it.

"But, there's enough foundation of relationships," he said. "Research partnerships are all about relationships."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.