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CCATP #489 – Bruce Wilson on Oak Ridge National Laboratory

On Tom Merritt’s Daily Tech News Show a while back, he mentioned an article about how the Oak Ridge National Laboratory had developed an ultrasonic clothes dryer that would eliminate the need for heat. I thought it was really cool so I tweeted about it. I got a response back from a NosillaCastaway, Bruce Wilson, who is the Chief Technology Officer for Information Technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He’s a fascinating guy with a background in chemistry and IT (and with an every so slight Apple bias).

You can find Bruce on Twitter: @usethedata

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Bruce is a scientist by original training who is now part of the leadership team for the Information Technology Services Division at ORNL (or Oak Ridge). That IT division is about 250 people responsible for supporting the work of about 2500 staff scientists and engineers at the lab and the tens of thousands of people who collaborate with and or visit the lab each year. His CTO role is all about how ORNL does IT to support science and engineering – he doesn’t get involved in how ORNL do the science and engineering itself. But enabling that science is a definite motivator.

Can you start us off by explaining what ORNL actually is?

  • ORNL is one of the 17 National Laboratories run by the Department of Energy.
  • Almost 5000 staff members, about half are scientists and engineers
  • Just outside Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Started as part of the Manhattan project. No longer involved in anything related to nuclear weapons. Evolved to be a broad open science facility, with particular expertise in neutron science, computer science, material science, and nuclear energy.
  • ORNL’s work can be divided into two different kinds of things. One is that we work on some of the most complicated and challenging problems, particularly those related to energy and security. The other is that we run what are called user facilities. An example is that we host the #3 supercomputer in the world, as part of the ORNL Leadership Computing Facility. Scientists submit proposals to DOE to be able to use ORNL’s supercomputers. The successful proposals get an allotment of supercomputer time and technical support.

Now let’s talk about your background because I think it’s fascinating the career path you’ve taken.

  • Both of my parents have Ph.D.s in Chemistry, though they are also both first generation through college. My dad was also a professor, which got me access to computers at a very early age. I started programming in the early 70’s in Basic, using a 110 baud teletype. You dialed the phone number for the mainframe on campus on the rotary dial telephone and then put the handset into the two matching rubber cup thingies on the back of the teletype.
  • I learned more during high school and at Michigan State University, one of my scholarships let me work for a professor and I learned more programming in FORTRAN and assembler on a PDP 11/40.
  • My graduate work was interdisciplinary between Chemistry and Statistics, and I graduated to programming on VAX systems.
  • I went to work for a division of Eastman Kodak coming out of graduate school and worked on things like understanding why we made better cellulose acetate in the winter than in the summer. The production line made several hundred thousand pounds of cellulose acetate a day, and there was lots of data coming off the sensors. It was a “big data” problem before that term became popular.
  • I did some other work on large scale production systems, but also got involved with doing more laboratory automation. We wound up being able to generate hundreds of samples a day instead of 1 or 2. I was drowning in data, and spent more and more of my time building the tools to deal with all of this data, first for myself, and then for other colleagues.
  • I wound up leaving Eastman and going to work for Dow Chemical, as part of an organization that was focussed on providing the specialized IT needed to support scientific research.
  • That first job was in the mountains of east Tennessee, and I fell in love with the region, even though I’d never lived there before. Michigan was OK, but I really wanted to come back to the mountains of east Tennessee. So, in 2006, I came to ORNL and moved from doing IT for chemists and material scientists to doing IT for ecologists and climate scientists. I was part of one of NASA’s Earth Observing System data centers: the distributed active archive center for biogeochemical dynamics (
  • In early 2011, I accepted an invitation to go broader – to do IT for all of the kinds of science and engineering at ORNL – as part of ORNL’s IT Services Division. I’ve had a couple of different roles in that central IT function and was named the CTO for enterprise IT just a few months ago. I don’t get involved in how ORNL’s scientists and engineers do their work, but a lot of my job is to understand how IT can help them get their jobs done more easily.
  • Doing IT for scientists and engineers, particularly the ones doing research, is different than doing IT for business. The scientists are often trying to do something for the first time and the things that they want to do often involve specialized software and hardware.
  • Part of why I started listening to Allison and the NosillaCast is that Allison is an engineer, not an IT person. Listening to how Allison thinks about computer stuff helps me in how to understand what’s important to my customers and how to talk about things in their language.
  • And scientific IT has a pretty significant Apple component. Among scientists and engineers at ORNL, about a third use a Mac as their preferred computer. When I go to scientific meetings, it’s common for Macs to outnumber Windows computers. There’s lots of reasons for that, but a key one is that a lot of the science we do depends on open source tools. And most open source software is written for Linux, so getting it to work on a Mac is often fairly straightforward.

Ultrasonic clothes dryer:

  • Water molecules like to stick to the fibers in clothes.
  • When water evaporates, those molecules go into the air. And water evaporates more rapidly when it’s warmer.
  • Drying clothes basically involves encouraging the molecules to evaporate, and then taking that evaporated water away so it can’t condense back onto the clothes. A typical clothes dryer takes a lot of energy because it heats things up. That heat gets wasted, with a lot of it going out the drier vent. Studies indicate that drying clothes, including commercial establishments like hotels, accounts for about 1% of the US national energy consumption. And it’s even more when you look at drying as part of things like making paper.
  • The innovation at ORNL came because some people recognized that there are other ways to get those water molecules excited so that the jump off the clothes fibers and into the air, where the can be carried off. The ORNL work uses something called a piezoelectric. These are crystals that vibrate really fast when you put an electric current across them. The ORNL scientists discovered a way to use these piezoelectrics to get the water molecules excited, in a way that doesn’t affect the fibers and which uses a whole lot less energy than a conventional drier.
  • There’s still lots of work to be done before you’d see this in a product for home, but it’s likely to make it into some specialized and commercial applications sooner.

Bruce also told me about a cool project being worked on at ORNL, a method of converting carbon dioxide into ethanol. My son Kyle is a chemical engineer who loves this kind of stuff, so I connected the two of them. I have to say that I almost immediately was in over my head reading what they wrote to each other. I was hoping Bruce could explain it to the lay people here on the show, because it sounds really cool.

  • Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem. The last time atmospheric CO2 was at the levels we have today, humans didn’t exist. I know there are people who don’t believe in climate change. There are also people who don’t believe that smoking causes cancer. But this isn’t a matter of faith or believing. The science of climate change, and the general effects of greenhouse gases are solid.
  • We know how to go from ethanol to carbon dioxide – it’s easy. You burn ethanol, like in an automobile engine, and you get heat, CO2 and water. From an energy perspective, the reaction goes downhill. Think about this like you’ve got a box of books on a shelf and you need them on the floor. That’s going downhill, and the trick is doing it carefully and under control. You can just shove the box off the shelf, and the books will get to the floor. But the box may well break, scatter the books, and maybe break some of the books as well.
  • Going the other way – up hill – we have a box of books on the floor and we need to get them on the shelf. We need to put some energy into the system, by lifting the box of books. In fact, we’re going to have to lift them just bit higher than the shelf, and then set them down on the shelf.
  • A lot of the time, in chemistry, going up hill is much harder. It’s like of like having to carry that box of books up a flight of stairs to get around a wall in front of the shelves. Or the reactions have unintended side effects, like adding a bunch of magazines into the box that later need to get sorted out. Or they’re kind of imprecise, like using a catapult to hurl the books up onto the shelf – some might make it, but others will go lots of other places.
  • So, we do have some ways to go from CO2 to ethanol, or other similar kinds of things. But they take a lot more energy than just what’s needed to go up hill. In a lot of ways, they’re like the catapult example. I can put that box of books into the catapult, launch them, and some will make it onto the shelf I want. But it’s going to take a lot of energy and books wind up all over the place.
  • What the ORNL scientists discovered was a way to use electricity as a way to provide the energy needed to go from CO2 to ethanol. The reaction happens in water, at room temperature, rather than at the high temperatures often needed. It’s kind of like the clothes drier we were talking about. Rather than just heating up all of the clothes, we find a way to be much more selective about where we put the energy.
  • This is what a catalyst does in a chemical reaction. It doesn’t change how much energy we have to put in to lift the books up onto the shelf or go from CO2 to ethanol. But it minimized the amount of extra, wasted energy we have to put in and it helps make sure that we just get what we’re looking for. Methanol and ethanol sound similar, and they’re very similar chemicals. But they are different, and there are reasons going to ethanol is a better answer.
  • As with the drier we spoke about, there’s work to be done with this. But it has the potential to let us use intermittent energy sources, like wind and solar, to convert captured CO2 into something that’s not a greenhouse gas and which has other uses.

Converting carbon dioxide into ethanol:

1 thought on “CCATP #489 – Bruce Wilson on Oak Ridge National Laboratory

  1. sTim - June 1, 2017

    I was bummed to hear you throw out the old line about IT being “waste”. I do understand that it does not in and of itself generate a profit, but the filing of things like IT and Maintenance as waste or some kind of financial drain, to me, contributes to the mindset that we see in many executives (and employees of other departments) where IT and these groups are viewed as unimportant or not worth listening to. It’s how we get into the very scenarios you referenced where something like WannaCry is released, and is able to do huge damage because things like patching servers or having good backups are “waste” generated by the IT department. Not to mention that most companies would have a hard time making their products if they had no Internet access, no network, no security in place, had to build their own computers, etc. I know “support” departments like IT aren’t what directly make the profits, but without them, it’d be pretty difficult to run your company or make a profit. There’s a healthy balance to strike of doing what’s necessary to help engineers and sales people do their job, but not letting them have whatever they want if it’s going to open up your company to ransomware, having their email servers blacklisted, or having no backups for when an engineer or salesperson “accidentally deleted a whole directory worth of critical data”. I can’t speak for every IT person, but I personally don’t need to be championed or celebrated, or really even publicly acknowledged for doing my job. I actually kind of enjoy the anonymity and keeping the things running that everyone expect to always run. But when we’re called waste, or a “cost center”, or even just encounter the attitude that we’re trying to prevent others from doing their job, it’s really disheartening.

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