Oak Ridge National Lab officials view new innovation push as modern day 'Manhattan Project'

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks visits Oak Ridge National Lab, Aug. 17. 2022. (Photo by Brandi Vincent)

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — The U.S. government has perhaps its best chance in recent decades to drive technological innovation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) officials told leaders of the departments of Defense and Energy on Wednesday, with some likening it to the push for new capabilities during the World War II era.

That Tennessee-based lab has roots that trace back to massive investments during the 1940s supporting the Manhattan Project that led to America’s development of the atomic bomb — a feat of research, development and engineering that changed the world and gave the United States a major strategic asset in its competition with advanced adversaries. Now, U.S. leaders say, the nation needs new innovations to compete with China and address other challenges of the modern era.

During her first stop on a four-state, technology-focused tour, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks heard from multiple senior Oak Ridge lab officials that the infusion of funding from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science for America Act, presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to innovate. The legislation, championed by the Biden administration, will provide funding for a variety of high-tech initiatives.

“We are treating this as the second Manhattan Project, essentially. We have an urgency to deliver,” Dr. Xin Sun, associate lab director for ORNL’s Energy, Science and Technology Directorate, said during a briefing during Hicks’ visit.

Oak Ridge’s technology focus areas now extend well beyond nuclear science and include applied materials, advanced manufacturing, biosecurity, transportation, supercomputing and more.

During their half-day visit, Hicks and Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk jointly toured America’s largest open-access battery manufacturing research and development center, based at that lab, and visited the Battery Manufacturing Facility there. They also saw the debut of Frontier, the United States’ first exascale — and currently most powerful — supercomputer.

“U.S. taxpayers have already put substantial R&D dollars down against this. What we want to see now is where that’s paying off and where we need to take it from here,” Hicks told FedScoop during the flight to the lab.

She and Turk also connected with dozens of scientists and engineers during the stop — and met with lab leadership.

“It’s a historic opportunity,” ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said of the additional financial backing that the nation’s labs are receiving.

“If you look back to the Manhattan Project,” the government had the support, investments and resources that led to the introduction of entirely new technologies and associated fields, he noted.

Now, he said, the national lab system once again has boosted resources and a responsibility to deploy and demonstrate innovative capabilities to drive new breakthroughs supporting national security.

“It’s a historic opportunity,” Zacharia said. “We have a once in a generation opportunity to make this real.”