The Debrief: Doon Gibbs shines a light on BNL

Doon Gibbs has seen the light, and it comes from the National Synchrotron Light Source II, Brookhaven National Laboratory’s new $912 million electron storage ring. Designed to produce X-rays more than 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor, the NSLS II – activated last year – is a centerpiece technology with uncounted scientific and commercial applications. It’s also one of many reasons Gibbs, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois and succeeded Sam Aronson as BNL director in 2013, is excited about the Department of Energy facility’s economic prospects in 2016 and beyond. His bright outlook:

LIGHT TOUCH: One of the most exciting things that happened last year was we started operation of the NSLS II, the brightest synchrotron in the world. It enables remarkable new experiments in materials, chemistry and biology, and even more broadly helps us understand structural and chemical properties with a long-term goal – at least from the Department of Energy’s perspective – toward energy applications, energy security and national security.

REVENUE SOURCE: Obviously, that ultimately has a potential impact on the economy. The NSLS, the previous light source, was itself a strong generator of ideas and technologies, and from Brookhaven’s perspective, the NSLS II is going to be even more profound.

ENERGIZE: We’ll be doing a lot of experiments involving energy – experiments with batteries, with fuel cells, with different kinds of solar applications, even, in the long term, experiments with nuclear-energy applications.

CASE STUDY: One of the most promising areas is energy-storage materials. In one experiment done on the predecessor light source, GE looked at batteries with high-energy X-rays that went right through the battery. They were able to see right through the iron casing without cutting it open to see how the battery operates in real time, and GE discovered that it could improve the process sufficiently. They were motived to invest a couple hundred million dollars, build a factory and employee a few hundred people.

GOT A LIGHT? It’s a compelling story, and one of the reasons New York State is investing something like $25 million into a new beam line for NSLS II that will enable study of battery systems and other energy systems in operando. Other companies will also be able to look at how their devices work in real time; it doesn’t have to be a battery or a solar cell or an (electrical) grid device.

START OF SOMETHING BIG: We already have eight beam lines working. Over the next two to three years, we’re going to increase that to 30, then over the following 10 years fully build it out. When it’s completely built out, the NSLS II will allow 60 experiments to go on simultaneously, available to users from all over the world. We’re expecting more than 4,000 users a year once it’s built out. We’re really excited about its potential.

TECH HUNT: In 2015, we also opened a new [Office of Strategic Partnerships] and brought in Lee Cheatham to run it. Lee is looking across the laboratory for other areas of research than can have these same kinds of impacts. His job is to identify them and pull together whatever’s necessary to develop the technology needed, and also to reach out to the State of New York and regional companies to see what they need. We’ve been holding workshops on a regular basis and are starting to recognize technologies in which companies are interested.

PICKING PARTNERS: We also have the Technology Commercialization Fund and the Small Business Innovative Research Program. Through the Technology Commercialization Fund, Department of Energy funds are matched with company funds when a company wants to invest in a laboratory technology. Through the longstanding SBIR Program, we partner with small businesses and subcontractors to work on their problems, and they can receive up to three-quarters of a million dollars, which is actually administered through a variety of different agencies, not just the DOE. Since October, we’ve partnered with 15 outside companies through the SBIR.

STATE OF MIND: We take full advantage of the fact we’re located in New York. We’ve been partnering with the state for several years on energy issues to enormous advantage, not only for our wish to contribute to the local economy but in helping us meet the Department of Energy’s mission generally.

IF YOU CAN MAKE IT THERE: The Department of Energy is a national agency, but it also recognizes there are regional issues across the country. The grid problem is different in New York than it is in the Pacific Northwest. But if you can solve some of these energy problems in New York, you can probably have a profound impact nationally. So, as the only multipurpose national laboratory in the state, we very much enjoy the benefits of working in and with New York.

INNOVATION, END-TO-END: The laboratory has always had an interest in commercial applications. It’s been part of our brand for decades. But in the last five to 10 years, we’ve made a concerted effort to reach out to new companies to help with their commercialization efforts. We call it our Discovery to Deployment initiative, wherein we help move things from invention to commercialization in the few areas we believe we have the proper expertise.

PURE ENERGY: The lab has a long history with a variety of technologies and sciences, but right now our most promising commercialization prospects are in energy applications. We’re looking forward to bringing up other beam lines at the NSLS II. We’re going to continue to explore the properties of the perfect fluid with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. We have many vigorous programs important to energy … and these are just some of the things we’re excited about in 2016.

Interview by Gregory Zeller