Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is making waves with its groundbreaking entrepreneurship program, Innovation Crossroads. This program provides hard science entrepreneurs with access to ORNL’s facilities, personnel, financial support, and guidance. The aim is not merely to foster wealth creation but to enable these entrepreneurs to bring about fundamental changes in global energy consumption and generation. As part of the Department of Energy (DOE), ORNL is committed to researching energy security, usage, and future technologies.
About Innovation Crossroads
Now in its 7th cohort, Innovation Crossroads has nurtured entrepreneurs like Matt Smith, of TCPoly, and Justin Nussbaum, of Ascend Manufacturing. Given ORNL’s substantial interest in 3D printing — from its large-scale composite printing technology, Big Area Additive Manufacturing, to its large-scale metal technology — it attracts a diverse range of innovators. This year, the Department of Energy (DOE), the DOE’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and other organizations are joining forces to sponsor Innovation Crossroads.
“Innovation Crossroads startups have collectively raised more than $170 million in follow-on funding and are responsible for the creation of 140 jobsEnergy technology entrepreneurship is difficult, but our alumni companies are seeing their hard work pay off. It will be exciting to experience the new ideas and energy of Cohort 7 as they build upon the recent momentum of Innovation Crossroads,” said Susan Hubbard, ORNL deputy for science and technology.
This year, Innovation Crossroads has selected seven promising entrepreneurs. Shantonio Birch of ThermoVerse aims to modernize old buildings with an innovative heating and cooling system. Manas Pathak from EarthEn plans to leverage carbon dioxide for long-term energy storage, potentially storing more than 100 hours of energy in a cost-effective, scalable, and safe manner that can last over 30 years. Meanwhile, Marouane Salhi of Qubit Engineering has developed quantum optimization algorithms for the design of energy-generating wind farms.
What sets Crossroads apart is the ambitious and transformative nature of the startups involved. Unlike typical programs, ORNL encourages participants to pursue ventures that can effect significant global changes. It’s an exciting platform for world-changing innovation.
3D Printing in this Year’s Crossroads Program
ORNL’s focus on AM has attracted three participants whose projects could profoundly influence AM and other sectors. Among these innovators is Daniel Lee of Perseus Materials, who is targeting the advancement of turbine production. Currently, wind turbines are massive and their production process is labor-intensive. Their blades require transportation over vast distances for installation, an expensive and often delayed process. Lee aims to revolutionize this sector by commercializing a large-scale 3D printing process for wind turbine blades. But his ambitions don’t stop there. He also envisions producing recyclable turbine blades, which would be a significant environmental victory. To add to the challenge, Lee proposes to manufacture these blades on-site and rapidly. This is an incredibly ambitious and potentially intimidating startup project. The sheer scale of Daniel’s ambition is impressive, and it’s hard to speculate how he plans to achieve these lofty goals.
By comparison, Sarah Jordan’s venture, Skuld, may seem more ordinary, but it’s tackling the immense casting market with a more efficient, lower-energy casting process. Jordan’s Additive Manufacturing Evaporative Casting (AMEC) method could produce parts in just a day or two. In some instances, it could be more cost-effective for certain geometries, saving substantial time and processing steps compared to traditional casting.
Additionally, the firm aims to produce ductile iron parts with a wall thickness of just 1 mm. The benefits of Skuld’s approach could also extend to reduced machining, more intricate shapes, and better accuracy than conventional investment casting techniques. This process is reported to use 27% less energy and emit 37% fewer greenhouse gases than traditional investment casting. If Skuld can successfully incorporate its 3D printing technique into casting, the potential impact could be huge.
Ryan Spencer’s ThermaMatrix utilizes a technique called “laser-digital-image-correlation” (LDIC), which heats a localized area of a material and monitors the corresponding thermal expansion with microscale resolution. When mounted on a gantry, this system could analyze both additive and non-additive processes, measure the material properties of parts, and perform defect detection. This could be incredibly valuable for closing the loop on a range of processes, as well as for quality assurance and other part examinations.
Arif Arifuzzaman’s venture, Re-Du, revolves around an organocatalyst that breaks down used plastic parts into marketable chemical compounds. This approach could introduce a much more foundational and energy-efficient method for reusing polymer materials than what currently exists.
The Innovation Crossroads program is undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating entrepreneurship initiatives in the field. The grandiosity of ambition is far more palpable here than in other programs. Innovation Crossroads is genuinely incubating startups that could revolutionize the world. As part of the 3D printing industry, we are fortunate that ORNL and its partners have consistently demonstrated a profound interest in additive manufacturing and in nurturing technologies that could significantly impact our industry and the world at large.
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