From Swords to Plowshares
With demand for weapons research declining, US national labs seek peaceful applications
WASHINGTON — THEY probably won't help you pick slivers out of your thumb. But "light tweezers" made of crossed laser beams are the sort of invention that United States national laboratories hope will help them prosper in the new world economy.
With the end of the cold war, demand for the principal labs' main product - nuclear weapons - is falling off sharply. Laboratories in Los Alamos and Sandia, N.M., and Lawrence Livermore, Calif., are all rushing to reposition themselves as repositories of technology that can help US industry stay competitive in the world marketplace.
This shift has been under way for some time. But the election of Bill Clinton, who promises to change the focus of government research from defense to civilian uses, will likely hasten it along.
"There's going to be a big push for the transfer of technology to the private sector," says an official at the Department of Energy, which funds the US national lab structure.
Take light tweezers as an example. Developed at the Los Alamos lab, the "tweezers" are laser beams focused beyond razor sharpness and aimed by a series of mirrors. They're so sensitive they can pick up a single living human cell and hold it with the pressure of light.
The tweezers are potentially valuable tools in biotechnology and laser surgery. Under an agreement with the lab, the technology is being hammered into the shape of a useful product by an Albuquerque, N.M., company, Cell Robotics Inc. The estimated cost of a final system is $25,000 to $40,000.
"We're looking at critical industries," says John Umbarger, deputy director of the Los Alamos Industrial Partnership Center. "We want high-value-added jobs and products here in the US."
The light tweezers, along with a number of other Los Alamos inventions, have won an "R & D 100" award from * & D Magazine, Mr. Umbarger points out. Over the past five years, Los Alamos has won 28 of the annual prizes - more than any other organization. This year the lab won four, for technologies ranging from portable hazardous-materials detectors to computer systems that help in speech therapy.
The Industrial Partnership Center itself is the forum Los Alamos uses to improve its ability to transfer technology to the private sector. Besides serving as a business office for patenting and licensing laboratory inventions, the Partnership Center manages co-research agreements between companies and the lab. Los Alamos has 27 of these cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) under way, with each side putting up half the cost for the work.
Los Alamos director Sig Hecker proposed CRADAs several years ago as a means to get industry aid in speeding the transformation of lab ideas into practical products. Industry gets access to the lab's scientists and facilities; down the line, product royalties from agreements could bolster lab funding.
In one CRADA example, Los Alamos and Hughes Aircraft are jointly studying ways to clean electronic components without ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-based solvents. They're focusing on using carbon dioxide, which at certain pressures and temperatures remains a gas but has the rinsing properties of a liquid. Up to a third of the 170 million pounds of CFCs used annually in cleaning could be replaced by this method, according to lab estimates.
Cray Research in Minnesota and Los Alamos are collaborating on three CRADAs. The most explicable of these aims to develop better computer simulations of global climate change. Los Alamos has scientists skilled at analyzing the software needed for this difficult task. Cray, producer of supercomputer systems used around the world for climate research, has the microchip horsepower to help the project.
Some industry officials have complained that there's too much red tape involved in starting CRADAs. Lab officials acknowledge that the process is still too slow but claim it's getting better.
FOR decades, after all, the national-lab culture has favored the detailed, pure science and spare-little-expense development of nuclear weapons. The big weapons labs aren't about to become nimble centers of civilian entrepreneurship - more than two-thirds of their budgets still come from defense sources. But their background in computer skills, gene work, superconductors, and other cutting-edge technologies is an important national resource, lab officials claim.
"Much of this technology can be used in the commercial arena," argues Umbarger.
Last year, for instance, the information technologies arm of the Los Alamos lab licensed a new way of taking fingerprints to a Maine company, ODV Inc., for commercial sale. The method, giving a new meaning to the James Bond movie title "Goldfinger," uses tiny specks of gold to lift prints that might be unobtainable with conventional methods.
First, an object suspected of having fingerprints is soaked in a citric-acid solution that contains suspended particles of gold about 100 millionth of an inch in diameter. The gold is electrically attracted to substances left behind by the press of a finger.
Then a bath in distilled water and a silver-based "fixer" solution leaves behind a well-defined, permanent print picture.
According to Los Alamos, law-enforcement agencies are particularly interested in the fact that this method can take prints from various types of tape. Drug dealers often use adhesive tape to bundle their wares or cash.