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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign for Oak Ridge National Laboratory is seen inside the conference center/visitor center/cafeteria building on Monday, June 10, 2019 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

A new partnership between the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee has won a $20 million prize to help propel a $100 million effort to recruit, train and utilize top scientists in East Tennessee.

U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette awarded the federal grant Wednesday to the Oak Ridge Institute, a partnership created between UT and ORNL a year ago to train science and engineering leaders and create new ventures to tackle new energy frontiers.

With the world's fastest computer already in Oak Ridge and the world's first exascale computer scheduled to completion at ORNL next year, the new institute will help leverage the pioneering projects underway at Oak Ridge with the educational and research programs at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

"This investment will help prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers to maintain America's global leadership in renewable power, sustainable transportation and energy efficiency," Brouillette said.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who helped write the legislation that provided for the $20 million competitive grant, said he expects the new institute will be recognized as one of the most important science and engineering alliances in the world.

"The Oak Ridge Institute will be a pipeline for a new supply of American-trained scientists and engineers, which our country sorely needs in this competitive world," Alexander said. "Already, the UT-Oak Ridge partnership has 250 joint faculty, five joint institutes, and 250 PhD students in jointly administered energy and data programs. With such a strong foundation and such strong current leadership, I am betting that during the next 80 years, the Oak Ridge Corridor brand and the Oak Ridge Institute will be recognized as one of the most important science and engineering alliances in the world."

For the past six years, Alexander has been chairman of the Senate's Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee that provides funding for national laboratories. The Oak Ridge National Lab, the federal government's oldest and biggest labs in the country, receives about $2 billion a year, or about half of the $4 billion of annual appropriations given for all of the work and cleanup efforts at the Oak Ridge reservation.

Oak Ridge was developed in World War II as part of the Manhattan project to build the first atomic bomb, and the Oak Ridge Institute is part of the biggest new scientific research collaborative since the Manhattan Project.

Dr. Thomas Zacharia, the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said the Oak Ridge Institute "is catapulting both the university and the laboratory to the next level and, in so doing, creating an innovation eco-system in the East Tennessee area that is unrivaled."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Chattanooga Republican and member of the House Appropriations Committee that helps fund Oak Ridge, praised the DOE grant and the Oak Ridge Institute efforts to attract, train and utilize top scientific talent in East Tennessee.

"This grant will help make the institute one of the world's premier research centers as it focuses on advancing research and workforce development," Fleischmann said.

The Oak Ridge Institute will focus on advancing research in several areas, including materials science, artificial intelligence and data sciences. It will expand graduate programs at the University of Tennessee and create more opportunities for UT students and faculty to conduct groundbreaking research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd said the $20 million DOE grant will be matched by $16 million from the university and, over time, the state would provide a total of $80 million. Gov. Bill Lee had initially designated $10 million in the next budget for the Oak Ridge Institute, but due to cutbacks from the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus, that funding was cut from the state budget.

"We're hopeful that when this current economic condition changes, we"ll be able to get back on track with that additional state funding," Boyd said.

Backers of the Oak Ridge Institute have dreamed of a joint venture between the state, the Oak Ridge National Lab and the University of Tennessee to help build a premier research corridor to attract and nurture top talent and technology businesses.

"This is the first step in establishing the Oak Ridge Institute as a force to change our state and nation," Boyd said.

UTK Chancellor Donde Plowman said the interdisciplinary nature of the institute "gives us unparalleled advantages in attracting students and faculty, resulting in a talent pipeline that will benefit the state of Tennessee, our country, and the world."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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