Research Blooms In the Idaho Desert

By Tom Bacon

A flat, dry desert expanse out in the middle of nowhere may seem an odd place to build a cutting-edge research lab. But Idaho has one.

A whole host of state, congressional and federal officials gathered at the Idaho National Laboratory the other day to celebrate opening of a new research lab they call the Energy Innovation Laboratory. It's a big building - 148,000 square feet - dedicated to cutting edge research on new materials for advanced nuclear reactors, for one thing, and for ways to make the nation's electrical grid and control systems more resilient and fool-proof.

The basic idea is to have a place where researchers, academics and industry people can get together to cross-pollinate ideas and methods to create clean energy and environmentally sustainable technology. Take, for example, development of alpha silicon carbide fibers. You probably never heard of them. But chances are, you will.

A couple of INL scientists, John Garnier and George Griffith, working in the desert lab, figured out for the first time a way to continuously produce the fibers that can be used to build cars that are lighter and stronger than steel. OR to make power lines that can carry more electricity. The fibers are impervious to high temperatures, they're affordable, chemical inert and durable.

BMW is already betting on carbon fiber to build car bodies. The company has a factory in Moses Lake Washington to build its new electric model. Right now, the carbon fibers are expensive. But Garnier and Griffith think they may have solved that problem. The new INL lab is one of 10 Department of Energy facilities around the country meant to encourage development and testing of specialized materials to use in nuclear and other energy applications.
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