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 microscopy pencils patterns in polymers at the nanoscale
December 17, 2014 — OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Dec. 17, 2014—Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have used advanced microscopy to carve out nanoscale designs on the surface of a new class of ionic polymer materials for the first time.
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.
Recent Research Highlights
Facets and disorder hold key to battery materials performance
December 10, 2014 — A synergistic combination of atomic-scale experiment and theory identify Ni antisites as the predominant defects in a lithium–manganese-rich cathode material. In addition, their formation energies are facet-dependent, with larger defect concentrations observed at open (010) facets.
Single Supported Atoms Participate in Catalytic Processes
December 04, 2014 — Researchers recently predicted and demonstrated that single supported Pt atoms are highly active for NO oxidation. This work will impact determining the optimum loading of noble metals on emissions-treatment catalysts and design of low-temperature catalysts.
Understanding Why Silicon Anodes of Lithium-Ion Batteries Are Fast to Discharge but Slow to Charge
December 02, 2014 — Silicon anodes for lithium-ion batteries are capable of quickly delivering high power but charge at a much lower rate. High-power and high-rate performance of batteries is determined by the intrinsic electrochemical reaction rates. The forward and backward reaction rates for reversible electrochemical reactions are not necessarily identical.