Posted on June 19, 2020
By: Monica Kast
June 19, 2020
The Oak Ridge Institute, in partnership with the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, announced today a $20 million federal grant designed to make the institute one of the world’s premier research centers.
The grant from the U.S. Department of Energy is the foundation of $100 million the institute is seeking to raise from public and private contributors.
The Oak Ridge Institute will focus on advancing research in several areas, including materials science, artificial intelligence and data sciences. It will expand graduate programs at UT and create more opportunities for UT students and faculty to conduct groundbreaking research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“Oak Ridge is going to lead us into the technological future,” U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said.
The funding is a direct result of efforts by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who outlined in the latest appropriations bill a competitive process for securing the federal dollars for workforce training. The training had to be centered on a partnership between labs that had a connection to a land grant research university, like UT.
“Now more than ever, we need students who are trained for the jobs of tomorrow,” Brouillette said.
The project is the culmination of 40 years of efforts to strengthen ties between the University of Tennessee and ORNL, Alexander told Knox News in an exclusive interview Wednesday morning.
This partnership and grant will make the Oak Ridge Institute “recognized as one of the most outstanding alliances of science and engineering anywhere in the world,” Alexander said.
Alexander said the recent big leap in the partnership between the university and the lab can be attributed to three factors: big thinking from university and laboratory leaders; strong leadership from the university and the lab; and record funding increases for national laboratories.
The partnership will focus on workforce development, and will “help us create not just the science but the scientists that our nation will need for generations to come,” UT System President Randy Boyd said.
The center’s work will pull together multiple areas of science and research, UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman said.
“The problems that the world faces these days need expertise and research from multiple disciplines,” Plowman said. “And this institute will enable us to bring people together to solve problems and at the same time, train future scientists. We couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of this.”
Initial research will focus on energy efficiency, and “the intersection of computing and advanced manufacturing,” ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said. Students involved in the institute would come from several areas of UT, including engineering and computational sciences, Plowman added.
“Oak Ridge Institute is truly developing and expanding that dream and that capability, to really catapult both the university and the laboratory to the next level, and in so doing, creating an innovation ecosystem in the East Tennessee area that is unrivaled,” Zacharia said.
Boyd has said becoming a leader in science and research is a main goal for the next decade at UT, starting with the Oak Ridge Institute.
“We think it’s the biggest science project since the Manhattan Project in the state of Tennessee,” Boyd told Knox News earlier this year.
The Oak Ridge Institute is designed to bring 500 new graduate students and 120 new faculty members to UT over the next 10 years. UT was originally set to get $10 million from the state to launch the institute, but that funding fell through during the pandemic.