National system offers insight into city’s Digital Lab

Written By By Neil Steinberg Staff Reporter Posted: 03/03/2014, 12:52pm

Kevin Gallagher works in an office in the Chemistry Building at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, room R-117 to be exact, with a white board on the door and a Bavarian beer mug with Albert Einstein’s face on it (“an Einstein stein” he quips).

He sits before his Dell Precision T-3500 computer and tries to unsort puzzles of basic research related to making batteries lighter and smaller, yet more powerful, starting at the molecular level.

“We are building better materials on the computer,” he said.

When President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a new Digital Lab for Manufacturing for Chicago, the obvious question is: What will it be like? Words like “innovation” and “future” were tossed around, yet the exact form of this project is hazy.

“It’s like pushing against a marshmallow,” said one official at the University of Illinois at Chicago, charged with describing the new endeavor.

The best way to get a hint of what to expect when tens of thousands of square feet on Goose Island transform into the Digital Lab is to look at the dozens of national labs already around the country.

Gallagher works for the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, or JCESR, a consortium of 14 participants — not only Argonne, but Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and Lawrence Berkeley in California — plus five universities and companies like Dow Chemical and Johnson Controls.

The first benefit of such cooperative efforts is they bring diverse talents to advancing science and solving technical problems.

“What we found is when you put brilliant people in one place, unexpected things happen,” said Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs, the model for these efforts, formed in 1928 and now the research arm of Alcatel-Lucent.

Not only do labs make breakthroughs, but they have an impact on their communities.

“It’s a big deal, having a laboratory in your backyard,” said Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of technology at Sandia. “Everyone in the state is always looking for opportunities to partner with the lab. If you have a company and you have an issue, we have a small-business program that helps.” She said that the businesses helped are not necessarily high-tech ones. Giggling Springs, a nearby spa resort, wanted to direct thermal heat to warm guest rooms. A Sandia expert figured it out.

“People are always surprised to hear we’re helping a company like that,” Kerby Moore said.

The Digital Lab will involve universities, the city, state, plus business and the Department of the Defense, and one could wonder if that wouldn’t bring more confusion than benefit. But each adds its own particular quality. The government has deep pockets and the best equipment.

“Industry is not capable,” said Jeff Chamberlain, deputy director of development and demonstration for JCESR, who worked with chemical companies before moving to Argonne. “I was just stunned. The lab is a combination of an old-school lab plus these amazing new tools.”

Tools such as the Advanced Photon Source, a synchrotron yielding incredibly bright X-rays.

“We refine X-rays and focus them to look at DNA and small materials,” Chamberlain said.

The device costs millions of dollars and is the most powerful in the Western Hemisphere. “There’s another one in Japan,” Chamberlain said. Universities bring a key element that can be scarce in government or industry: young minds.

“We have about 90 graduate students; that’s pretty amazing,” Gallagher said. “They have a really strong effect on next-generation work.”

And industry brings the problems that need solving: better batteries, brighter displays. Industry also, increasingly, brings the profit motive. At Sandia, engineers are encouraged to take leaves of absence to get startups going.

Companies participating in the research find the benefits of public development outweigh the advantages of secrecy.

“It was encouraging to see industrial partners open to this new model,” Chamberlain said. “I’ve asked Johnson Controls, over and over, ‘Are you glad you did [partner]?’ They say it’s simple. If we’re in on the research, we do have a competitive advantage.”

Despite impressive numbers — $70 million from the Defense Department, $250 million from other sources — the Chicago initiative will be small by big-research standards. Its yearly budget of $20 million to $25 million is 1 percent of the $2.5 billion annual budget at Sandia. Differing in size and focus, each lab has its own identity.

“Our labs are so different,” said Amy Lientz, director of communications and governmental affairs for Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “The Department of Energy has 17 national labs across the country, so we try not to have a lot of duplication. Some labs are more design-side, some more research-side. Our labs are very diverse. You’ll still find the traditional scientist with the beakers, studying chemistry within the laboratory, but you’ll also find big high-bay areas for very large demonstration types of experiments, testing biofuels. It’s very wide-ranging.”

The Chicago lab will focus on solving manufacturing issues and getting products to market, so its scope seems to be short term, but Bell Labs offers the reminder that the Silicon Valley model — get the product together, rush it to market, make a bundle — can be at odds with science, and might even be counterproductive in the long-term economic health. Weldon said sometimes, by approaching a large, distant goal, short-term solutions are found more easily.

“This new lab in Chicago is something we would want to collaborate with,” Weldon said. “The ecosystem of these labs should be collaborative in nature. Silicon Valley tends to be closed and private. We are much more about innovation and solving problems for industry as a whole.”

Any advice from a revered lab in existence for 86 years to a new lab just starting up? “Hire the best and the brightest,” he said.


Twitter: @neilsteinberg

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