The DeepTech Playground in Tennessee: An Interview with Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Sep 29, 2021

By Tricia Martinez, Managing Director of the Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator

The gem of Tennessee as people like to call it, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), is the largest Department of Energy National Laboratory in the country with the biggest supercomputers, most advanced technologies, world renowned scientists and the list could go on. To say this is a place where techies can geek out is an understatement. I have had the privilege of working with ORNL while serving as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Department of Energy and now as the Managing Director of Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator. 

Oak Ridge photo blog

Some quick history and background on ORNL:

ORNL was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, for the specific purpose of building the world’s first continuously operating nuclear reactor and demonstrating that it could produce plutonium. Once proven, the scientists and engineers at Oak Ridge used that reactor in many different ways. Obviously they studied and experimented with how to harness nuclear energy. They also created the field of neutron diffraction, which is still used today at the only reactor still operating on site, the High Flux Isotope Reactor, as well as at the Spallation Neutron Source. Neutron science has a number of advantages for materials research, including the study of biological materials, and ORNL did a lot of work on COVID-19 at their neutron sources.

ORNL also produces isotopes to fight cancer, diagnose disease, aid scientific research, help industry, and power NASA missions. They continue to do a lot of biological and environmental research. Originally, their expertise in biology developed to study the effects of radiation, and today it has grown to fight climate change, to accelerate bioenergy, and to support medical breakthroughs.

They operate some of the world’s most powerful computers for scientific discovery, modeling, and simulation. And they apply all of their scientific expertise in support of national security, including protecting the power grid, keeping ports safe, and aiding nonproliferation.

Thomas Zacharia Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Thomas Zacharia Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

I recently sat down with the Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Thomas Zacharia, who is someone I really respect and admire. Thomas is a leader in Industries of the Future and pushes the boundaries of what is possible and what our country can and should do every day. 

Question 1: How does ORNL define Industries of the Future and what is the lab doing to advance these fields?

Industries of the Future represent emerging fields such as clean energy tech, artificial intelligence, quantum information science, advanced manufacturing, advanced communications, and biotechnology—fields that are poised to transform our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Oak Ridge National Lab is responsible for big scientific facilities that attract users from around the world, and we employ the experts needed to build, maintain, and operate them, so a big part of our contribution is to provide the supercomputing power, materials science capabilities, and demonstration platforms that are needed by people—both inside and outside the lab—who are trying to grow the industries of the future.

Here are a few specific examples of what we are doing:

The Summit system at Oak Ridge is the most powerful high-performance computing machine in the United States but it is also the nation's smartest supercomputer. Its architecture is optimized for AI applications, which helps researchers apply machine learning and deep learning techniques to science problems to get accurate results in hours or days rather than weeks or months. For instance, its capabilities can identify subcellular structures for medical research, develop libraries of material structures and defects, and analyze vast stores of data to improve treatments for cancer patients.

The lab also leads the Quantum Science Center, a collaboration among industry, academia, and other national labs that is developing topological materials to ensure America leads the quantum revolution. The center’s advances will help to realize computers that are exponentially more powerful than today’s leading systems, sensors with unprecedented precision, and more secure networks that could pave the way for a fully quantum internet.

At the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at our nearby Hardin Valley Campus, our staff partners with industry on research and development that will help the energy efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness of American manufacturers.

Oak Ridge also has expertise and special facilities for genomics, computational biology, microbiology, microbial ecology, biophysics, and structural biology that are helping us to better understand complex biological systems and their relationship with the environment. That includes the work of the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, a Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Center focused on developing plants and microbes for next-generation, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly bioproducts and biofuels that can be used by industry.

Question 2: What are some breakthrough technologies ORNL is building right now?

We are doing a lot of work related to the capture and reuse of atmospheric carbon. Direct air capture, or DAC, has a key role to play in reaching the goal of a net-zero emission economy, so our experience with materials, biology, and applied technology are all coming into play. So far, it has yielded discoveries such as a catalyst that converts carbon dioxide into ethanol and processes for recycling carbon fibers and turning them into materials with application in transportation, technology, and other industries. 

I will also mention vehicle electrification—specifically wireless charging, which can be a game-changer in mainstreaming the use of EVs. Our researchers developed a system that charges cars and trucks across an 11-inch airgap at a rate that is on par with a wired system. Combined with work we are doing to improve batteries, Oak Ridge is in the middle of changes that are already beginning in the auto industry.

We expect to launch the nation’s—and probably the world’s—first exascale computing system this fall. It is called Frontier, and “exascale” means it will be capable of exceeding a quintillion (or 10^18) calculations per second, which is five times faster than today’s top computers and will provide new capabilities for deep learning, machine learning and data analytics, for applications ranging from manufacturing to human health.

Question 3: Why does ORNL want to grow and expand the technology startup ecosystem?

There are several reasons. Technology-based innovation is very important to the nation’s economic security. Since our start during World War II, we have contributed to the scientific innovations that have driven US leadership in the world. Today, the nation needs more innovation hubs, and Oak Ridge is partnering with UT and TVA to catalyze those opportunities in our region. 

As a federal institution, we are also committed to technology transfer—that is, taking the breakthroughs we make in fundamental science and translating them into applications in the marketplace. We create economic impact through partnerships with companies.  

We also benefit as a national laboratory from close collaboration with the private sector. Companies tell us what problems they are trying to solve, which helps to guide our work to the areas where we can make the biggest impact. 

Finally, a robust private sector in the region is good for everybody. The more options there are for people to build a career, the more people will decide that the Oak Ridge Corridor is a place they want to be.

Question 4: How does ORNL intend to work with and support technology startups in the Techstars Industries of the Future accelerator?

We are designating a point person so Techstars participants have no difficulty connecting to the researchers and capabilities at the lab and accessing the lab to advance their businesses. We hope the accelerator will mark the beginning of a long collaboration with the companies.

We intend to assist in any way we can to leverage our existing networks and relationships to help the entrepreneurs who will be a part of the accelerator. We are also committed to providing mentors, and I plan to be a mentor myself.

Question 5: What do you see as being the most disruptive and game-changing technology of our time?

I will offer two.

Quantum materials and devices promise the next era of information technology. Of course, the world at the quantum level behaves differently than the world we have studied for most of human history, so there are a lot of challenges to overcome. The potential really is game-changing, however. For instance, quantum computers will enable calculations and simulations far beyond what we can imagine today; it also can render traditional encryption obsolete. 

The other technology I will mention is fusion energy, which can provide emission-free, clean, safe electricity for the world for millennia. We are working on it, along with researchers and companies around the world, including at the international ITER fusion reactor in France, which will provide a bridge to actual fusion power plants. The materials science and technology development that accompanies this effort has broader benefit, but success in commercializing fusion energy would very quickly reset the entire global energy system.

Are you a Founder building deeptech? Are you a scientist Interested in Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator program? Sign up for Office Hours with us, subscribe to my blog, or reach out to me for support!

About the Author
Tricia Martinez

Tricia Martínez is the Managing Director of the Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator. Tricia is an experienced serial entrepreneur, executive, and activist passionate about driving large-scale impact through technology and innovation. Tricia has earned titles including top 20 founders of color by Conscious Company Magazine, Hispanic Entrepreneur of the Year by USHCC, a top 100 FinTech Leader, among others. Tricia is also an alumna of the London Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars participating in the 2016 program with her blockchain-enabled financial services platform, Wala.