ORNL has the nation’s most comprehensive materials research program and is a world leader in research that supports the development of advanced materials for energy generation, storage, and use. We have core strengths in three main areas: materials synthesis, characterization, and theory. In other words, we discover and make new materials, we study their structure, dynamics and functionality, and we use computation to understand and predict how they will behave in various applications.
From its beginnings in World War II’s Manhattan Project, ORNL has had a distinctive materials science program. Today, materials science research benefits from ORNL’s integration of basic and applied research programs and strong ties among computational science, chemical science, nuclear science and technology, neutron science, engineering, and national security. This broad approach to research is allowing ORNL to develop a variety of new materials for energy applications and transfer these new materials to industry. For example, an understanding of how defects form at the atomic level allows creation of improved materials that approach their theoretical strength, such as radiation-resistant steels for next-generation nuclear reactors and lightweight materials for energy-efficient transportation. In electrical energy storage, we are studying how chemical processes occur at the interface of electrodes and electrolytes and using supercomputers to predict how battery systems will perform. We develop “soft” materials, including polymers and carbon-based materials, used as membranes for batteries, fuel cells, and carbon capture, solar cells, and as precursors for the carbon fiber used in lighter cars and planes. We’ve also discovered ways to improve materials processing, using photon, microwave and magnetic field-assisted processing to increase the performance of new materials while reducing processing costs. These advances have resulted in a broad portfolio of ORNL materials and technologies in the nuclear, automotive, and structural materials industry.
ORNL researchers are improving analytical tools used to characterize the structure and function of advanced materials, including electron microscopy, scanning probes, chemical imaging, and a variety of neutron scattering capabilities. Many of these capabilities are available through DOE user programs at ORNL, including the two neutron user facilities (the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor), the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, and our microscopy user facility (the Shared Research Equipment User Facility—which will be incorporated in the CNMS later this year). Complementing our experimental research is one of the nation’s largest collections of materials theorists who take full advantage of ORNL’s leadership computational facility to understand and design new materials, as well as processes that occur at materials interfaces. Together, these research capabilities in materials synthesis, characterization, and theory contribute to our leadership in basic and applied materials science that ultimately will lead to new technologies for meeting tomorrow’s energy needs.
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ORNL materials researchers get first look at atom-thin boundaries
November 10, 2014 — OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 10, 2014—Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have made the first direct observations of a one-dimensional boundary separating two different, atom-thin materials, enabling studies of long-theorized phenomena at these interfaces.
Good vibrations give electrons excitations that rock an insulator to go metallic
November 10, 2014 — OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 10, 2014—For more than 50 years, scientists have debated what turns particular oxide insulators, in which electrons barely move, into metals, in which electrons flow freely. Some scientists sided with Nobel Prize–winning physicist Nevill Mott in thinking direct interactions between electrons were the key.
ORNL thermomagnetic processing method provides path to new materials
November 06, 2014 — OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 6, 2014 – For much the same reason LCD televisions offer eye-popping performance, a thermomagnetic processing method developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory can advance the performance of polymers.
Recent Research Highlights
Crown Ethers in Graphene Bring Strong, Selective Binding
November 14, 2014 — Researchers discovered the long-sought crown ether structures with perfect rigidity in oxidized atomic-scale holes in graphene. Calculations indicate that these “super crown ethers” provide unprecedented binding strength and selectivity. Thus, new supramolecular materials in which metal ions are trapped into arrays within the graphene plane are possible.
Strain-induced vacancy stability shown across an interface
November 12, 2014 — Density functional theory (DFT) calculations show that among the four types of (001) SrTiO3 | (001) MgO interface structures, the TiO2-terminated SrTiO3 containing electrostatically attractive Mg–O and Ti–O ion–ion interactions form the most stable interface.
Shaking the bonds: Atomic vibrations drive insulator to metal
November 10, 2014 — Neutron and x-ray experiments, coupled with large-scale first-principles calculations have revealed the origin of the metal–insulator transition in vanadium dioxide, an intractable question in phase stability for more than 50 years.