Jefferson Lab, NASA Langley Join Forces

The region's two federal research labs, on plots less than 10 miles apart, officially tied the knot Tuesday morning.

A new agreement, signed by lab directors in an official ceremony, formalizes the bond between Hampton's NASA Langley Research Center and Newport News' Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, allowing the two to trade research expertise, equipment or staff without months of bureaucratic paperwork.

Those ties, officials say, could result in more leading-edge technology for industries, all on a smaller bill for taxpayers.

"Researchers at the two agencies can see the same result for less taxpayer money," said Christoph W. Leemann, the Jefferson Lab's interim director. "More of it goes into actual work."

The agreement determines liabilities, intellectual property rights and other legal aspects of blending Jefferson Lab's nuclear physics and lasers with NASA's aerospace and structural know-how.

By doing so in one fell swoop, it chops a project's half-year approval process down to a matter of days. Before, each money transfer between agencies would require, among other things, a pageful of signatures and legal requirements. A new joint account code, established by the agreement, cinches those transfers with an afternoon phone call.

This promises to be good news for scientists who don't feel like shuffling through two administrations every time they have an overlapping idea.

"If you make the cooperative barrier too high, people will move on to other things," said Jeremiah F. Creedon, Langley Research Center director.

Until about five years ago, Jefferson Lab — funded by the U.S. Department of Energy — had narrowed its focus to strictly nuclear physics research. Since then, the lab has emphasized transferring that science into real-life applications. NASA, meanwhile, has been reviewing its procedures in the past couple of years, working to the mantra of faster, cheaper and better.

The combination — fed by an environment of constantly tightening budgets — led to talks between the two agencies.

Already, two projects are on the lab tables.

In one, NASA's structural experts will help Jefferson Lab test metal properties for use in certain chambers of the lab's accelerators, including the one-of-a-kind Free Electron Laser.

In return, a NASA researcher is using that high-powered laser to produce a microscopic carbon tube, about the size of a DNA strand. Though tiny and lightweight — millions of them look like a quarter-sized clump of soot — these nanotubes are extremely sturdy.

They're also flexible. They can be used as semiconductors and fuel containers and in composite materials. If they're used to make parts of aircraft or spacecraft, they could lighten the load considerably, cutting costs of fuel or a rocket launch.

"That's thousands and thousands of pounds that could be satellite, rather than just weight on a structure," said Michael W. Smith, a NASA aerospace scientist working at Jefferson Lab's Applied Research Center. He's a major player in the nanotube project, which is searching for more funding.

With the agreement, he said, ``we have support from up top, and that makes things so much easier."

Beyond the science, though, are sales. When there's agency collaboration, there's more research. When there's more research, there's potential for more technology. And technology wins in today's competitive marketplace race.

"What industries really need are solutions for today's problem today," said John J. Horsting, a team leader at Siemens Automotive, which uses an ARC lab to research how to control gasoline flow to automotive cylinders.

"The more heads, the better," he said. "What we can end up with then is a real solution, not just a theoretical paper. A solution that we can really put in effect."

— Reach Vandana Sinha at vsinha@pilotonline.com or 446-2318.