One of America's biggest research labs to open in Chattanooga

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason talks about the past year and looks ahead to the next one during an interview on Dec. 12, 2014, in his office. (FRANK MUNGER/NEWS SENTINEL)
photo U.S. Congressman Chuck Fleischmann speaks during a meeting with the Times Free Press editorial board and reporters in the newspaper's office Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

One of America's biggest research labs soon will open an office in downtown Chattanooga, a move city leaders hope will spur growth in the city's Innovation District and connect local businesses and universities with Tennessee's largest research and construction projects.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is readying an office at EPB, where researchers from the lab have been studying the city-owned utility's pioneering smart grid and fiber optic system.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said having the Department of Energy lab here should help local entrepreneurs, businesses and academic institutions take better advantage of the $4 billion-a-year federal facilities 90 miles up the road in Oak Ridge.

"This will help unite Chattanooga, with all of its innovation, entrepreneurship and capital, with the great science reservoir that is up in Oak Ridge," Fleischmann told the Times Free Press on Friday. "I think we will look back 10 years from now and see this as a major step forward for our city and its development."

ORNL Director Thom Mason said the first staffers will be those already working with EPB on the smart grid, which the utility with the aid of a $111.4 million DOE grant awarded six years ago. Mason said he hopes the initiative will grow over time. Opening a Chattanooga office to help spread and commercialize innovations from ORNL is part of a natural extension of the Oak Ridge facilities, Mason said.

"We are proud of our past and the 'secret city' that was built in Oak Ridge during World War II, but today, the Oak Ridge lab is primarily an open science and energy lab," he said. "The work that we do only achieves its full potential when it turns into technology that gets deployed and [is] in products that people buy and services that are sold."

The lab does the research, but does not bring the fruits of its discoveries to the marketplace. That's what backers of the outreach office hope Chattanooga businesses will do.

"This can be the place where we put these ideas into the marketplace and be the living lab to try out new technologies," EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson said.

Fleischmann, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and co-chairman of the congressional caucus for the national labs, has been pushing for ORNL to open a Chattanooga office for years.

Oak Ridge also has a major weapons production facility operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is building a $6.5 billion uranium processing facility to replace its aging Y-12 weapons complex. Fleischmann said 42 Chattanooga businesses have bid for work on the uranium processing facility, which will be the largest construction project ever in Tennessee.

The new ORNL office will be formally announced Monday at a summit in Chattanooga where top DOE officials, including Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, will talk about the regional character of clean energy and innovation. The all-day conference at The Chattanoogan is one of a series DOE has scheduled around the country to discuss how to spread technologies and foster more clean energy approaches in local communities.

For Chattanooga, that will soon involve a $2.4 million initiative by EPB to build solar installations in Sale Creek and near downtown as part of a TVA pilot program.

EPB President David Wade said the utility also will participate in a battery storage project that could complement the solar projects. Wade said EPB and its energy partners have been awarded seven grants totaling $20 million from the DOE, the National Science Foundation and others.

Wade said over the past two years, ORNL researchers studying EPB's smart grid have worked to develop ways to analyze and use all of the extra information and data collected by the system. EPB uses technology called Intelliruptors to detect problems earlier, restore power more quickly when problems develop and allow for better planning and load management.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said the new ORNL office will create another anchor in the city's downtown Innovation District.

"We're trying to bring people together with creative new ideas in the heart of our city, and having ORNL right in the center of that district is a big validation of our effort and should spur us to have even more action that will lead to more great businesses," Berke said. "We want these great minds from Oak Ridge to be here, interacting with others in Chattanooga so we can have the kind of back-and-forth that leads to innovative ideas."

Mason said that, as a laboratory, "We're used to experiments, and this new office is a bit of an experiment in itself" in expanding the reach of DOE's scientific studies.

"Given the collaboration we already have with EPB involving their smart grid, this seems like a natural place to start in Chattanooga," Mason said.

"We're doing a lot of work on additive manufacturing and 3-D printing which there is obvious interest in by a number of businesses in Chattanooga. For the SIM Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, modular computing and simulation is a signature strength of Oak Ridge (with the world's second-fastest computer). There are a number of areas of possibilities, so what we want to start with is having a liaison to better connect Chattanooga to our lab and all we have to offer."

Bill Kilbride, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said the local DOE office should help better link the strengths of Chattanooga and Oak Ridge.

"This is all about opportunity," he said. "We have incredible assets both nationally and locally and to be able to bring the Oak Ridge National Laboratories together with our local technology assets - including EPB, the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the people who drive innovation in our region – brings Chattanooga great opportunities, some we haven't acknowledged yet."

Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.