Genex Corp., the Gaithersburg biotechnology company, wanted to study the structures of enzymes.
E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., the chemical and life sciences giant, wanted to measure trace elements in Teflon.
General Electric Co. wanted to look at sub-microscopic flaws in jet-engine turbine blades.
All three were able to perform their research by using a special tool found at the National Bureau of Standards' Gaithersburg campus.
Local entrepreneurs and international corporate giants alike use NBS' neutron reactor to probe the structure and other properties of various materials. Their research serves as the basis for future advances in biotechnology, electronics, fiber optics, aerospace and other fields.
The neutron reactor, one of only a handful in the world with similar capabilities, is one example of the link between federal research resources and U.S. industrial competitiveness. Like the federal supercomputers and medical laboratories located around the Washington area, the NBS research reactor is a multimillion-dollar facility that no single company can afford, but that many can use.
Like other federal research facilities, NBS, the nation's physical sciences and engineering measurement laboratory, nurtures technological progress by working to solve basic scientific problems. The agency, part of the Department of Commerce, develops standards, measurement techniques, reference data, test methods and instrument calibration services. This work lays the foundation upon which advanced technology companies can perform more applied research and product development.
"Business is their constituency," said Edward M. Chait, Du Pont's manager of business development and former chairman of an NBS advisory panel. "Buildings would fall down or materials would disintegrate" without the infinitely precise measurement standards established by NBS, he said.
The agency's collaboration with business dates from the turn of the century, when it set standards for railroad tracks and worked with the steel industry to improve the quality of the alloyed metal.
NBS also echoes the tone of other federal labs that, after years of shyness about corporate connections, now couch budget requests in terms that stress the benefits of their programs to U.S. industrial competitiveness.
NBS has relied on this theme while campaigning for a $27 million addition to its reactor that would bring its capabilities up to par with a $150 million facility in France and a $50 million facility planned in Japan.
Without the addition, which would enhance the reactor's "cold neutron" or low-energy capabilities, "our nation will be left far behind our main industrial competitors in access to essential cold-neutron measurement technology," Lyle Schwartz, director of the NBS Institute for Materials Science and Engineering, told a House subcommittee in March. He urged approval of the funding "in a competitive world in which standing still guarantees falling behind."
In simplest terms, the research reactor is a tool scientists can use to discern the structure of materials, looking at things that are bigger than atoms but smaller than molecules. Industry can then use that structural knowledge to better understand the performance of materials -- how an enzyme links to another protein or how Teflon reacts to heat or how a turbine blade wears down over time. Companies working to develop new products use this structural knowledge to design improved materials, such as better semiconductors, more effective pharmaceutical agents, stronger and lighter metals, or ceramic tiles to cover a space shuttle.
The reactor works by splitting atoms into particles called neutrons and concentrating them into pencil-thin beams that can penetrate a material without destroying it. Use Determines Yield
The process yields information in different ways, depending on the instrument used. The reactor can produce a visual image, or radiograph, much like an X-ray image, if the neutrons are beamed through an object onto a piece of film. The Smithsonian Institution uses this process to look at paintings for hints of images that lie under the finished product, or for information about the elements that can be used to date a work.
Another method records the scattering patterns of neutrons beamed through an object and uses computers to determine the atomic or molecular structure that would yield such a pattern.
The reactor's power -- 20 megawatts -- is less than 1 percent as powerful as the type of nuclear reactors that generate electric power. Its core contains a few pounds of uranium fuel, compared with the tons of fuel in the core of a power-generating reactor, and the research reactor can be shut down in less than a second while a power reactor may take days to halt, said Robert Carter, chief of NBS' reactor radiation division.
The NBS reactor is one of about 70 research reactors across the country, but is one of the top four in terms of power and research capabilities, Carter said. The others are one unit at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., and two at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
NBS has the only research reactor in this country with a large-volume source of "cold neutrons," which are brought from a refrigerated chamber within the reactor. Cold neutrons move more slowly and allow researchers to conduct experiments that are not possible with conventional neutron beams.
NBS is installing two instruments to use its cold-neutron source, and hopes to have 15 or 16 instruments if it gets the additional funding. Western Europe has 60 cold-neutron instruments, said Jack Rush, leader of NBS' Neutron Scattering Group.
Cold neutrons are "one of the key tools used to provide information for the development of advances in materials and products," Rush said, adding that industry is expected to provide $5 million toward the upgrading. "It's an international competitiveness issue." 300 Use Reactor Each Year
Over the course of a year, about 300 scientists from government, academia and industry use the reactor on projects ranging from nuclear theory to analyses of food contaminants.
Most of the work performed on the reactor is basic science -- fundamental scientific problems that yield results that belong in the public domain. But since 1984, NBS has allowed companies to use various facilities, including the reactor, for proprietary work -- research that yields information not made public and that remains the property of the company and may be used to win patents or develop new commercial products.
The stated goal of this policy change was to "improve U.S. international competitiveness by providing U.S. industry access to special government facilities to advance technology and improve productivity."
Amoco Co., International Business Machines Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. have, or are, using the reactor for proprietary purposes. Under this program, the companies pick up all the costs of using the reactor, and NBS does not ask about their projects.
When companies collaborate with NBS on nonproprietary work, they contribute the time of their corporate scientists but do not pay for access to the reactor. Users who are not collaborating with NBS and not doing proprietary work -- such as the Food and Drug Administration, which is using the reactor to analyze food ingredients -- pay for their time on the reactor according to the instrument used and the nature of the work.
The facility is available to any qualified investigator, but local users have the advantage of proximity.
Having NBS and other federal research facilities nearby is "absolutely" a benefit, said Du Pont's Chait. More Local Firms Expected
Rush said NBS expects more local companies to use the reactor once the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology gets going at the nearby Shady Grove Life Sciences Center. CARB, the product of a partnership between NBS, the University of Maryland and Montgomery County, hopes to serve as a contact point and collaborator for biotech researchers who could use the reactor to probe the structures of proteins and other biomolecules, said Kevin Ulmer, director of CARB.
"CARB has no monopoly on the reactor, but proximity helps," Ulmer said, noting that many experiments can take months to complete. "The ability to be next door is essential."