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March 06, 2013 | Tom Ballard

“Bridging the Gap” concludes with cluster discussion, focus on “big data”

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) annual “Bridging the Gap” commercialization conference wrapped-up yesterday with tours of three major facilities and panels focused on cluster opportunities in the region and “big data.”

About 170 people pre-registered for the two-day event that featured presentations on innovations occurring in three research areas – energy and advanced materials on Tuesday and “big data” on Wednesday. Each of the research areas featured a general overview followed by presenters who discussed a specific subset of the larger topic. In the case of energy, the topics were building technologies, sustainable transportation, and bio-energy, while the advanced materials area included discussions about additive manufacturing, carbon fiber composites, and lightweight materials.

The advanced materials theme continued on Wednesday morning with four individuals talking about on-going work in both carbon fiber and additive manufacturing.

Both Jesse Smith, Director of Technology for Innovation Valley, Inc., (IVI) and Buzz Patrick, Director of Advanced Manufacturing for Tech 20/20, struck similar themes as they described their focus on developing and expanding the region’s supply chain. Smith is leading IVI’s efforts to capitalize on ORNL’s groundbreaking research in low-cost carbon fiber, while Patrick is coordinating a team focused on implementing a $2.4 million, multi-agency federal grant that leverages ORNL’s research in additive manufacturing.

“When you try to build a cluster, you get all of the people (who are) involved networked together,” Smith said. “We’ve mapped-out the carbon fiber supply chain in the region, and we’re recruiting companies in every area where we have gaps.”

Patrick noted that his efforts “are very similar to what Jesse said.” In the case of the Advanced Manufacturing and Prototyping Center (AMP!), Patrick talked about R-AMP, a consortium of companies in the region that have an interest in additive manufacturing, a subset of advanced manufacturing.

“We’re trying to get disparate industries to work together,” he said, adding that a key strategy is to “get them to try specific technologies.”

Both Smith and Patrick discussed the all important element of a well-trained workforce and the education partners that each initiative has – Roane State Community College (carbon fiber) and Pellissippi State Community College (AMP!)

Joining Smith and Patrick on the Wednesday morning panel were Rob Klawonn, President of Toho Tenax America, Inc., in Rockwood and Zach Shanley, Mechanical Engineering Research and Development Manager at Northrop Grumman Remotec in Clinton.

Klawonn noted that worldwide usage of carbon fiber today is less than 40,000 tons annually, but projections are that the number will reach 200,000 tons by 2020. Explaining that much of the usage historically has been for space and aerospace applications, he said the “opportunity (in the future) is on the industrial side.”

Applications range from areas like off-shore oil and gas exploration taking advantage of carbon fiber’s “stronger and stiffer than steel” properties to local industries like boat building and its long-standing use of composites.

Another target is the automotive sector.

“Carbon fiber in automotive is the most talked about area,” Smith said. “As CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards go up, new vehicles cannot continue gaining weight” if the original equipment manufacturers are to be compliant with the new requirements.

ORNL houses some of the world’s most powerful computers, so a focus on “big data” was a natural closing topic. Presentations covered data analytics, data systems, modeling and simulation, and cyber security.

“Bridging the Gap” concluded with tours of the recently updated and enhanced Everest Visualization Laboratory, the new $35 million Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, and the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.