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Since When Did Oak Ridge National Laboratory Get Into Racing?

When you think of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, your first thought probably isn’t race cars. If anything, you might inadvertently think of super secret nuclear stuff, but contrary to popular belief, that stuff doesn’t happen at Oak Ridge. It happens nearby at two other facilities: Y-12 and the East Tennessee Technology Park. The later was formally known as the K-25 Site or Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Both sites are entirely different from ORNL; they’re managed by various contractors and located miles away from each other. Since the end of World War II’s Manhattan Project, ORNL has not had any nuclear weapons production work.

The purpose of ORNL is mostly open research today. Although some work done cannot be publicized because it is classified as national security, most of the laboratory’s findings are published in magazines or academic papers/journals accessible to anyone. Additionally, many facilities provided can be used by researchers from other places, like different laboratories or universities.

While that takes away a lot of the James Bond and Secret Squirrel glamor of Oak Ridge (sorry), that doesn’t mean nothing fun or exciting happens there, especially if you’re a cleantech geek like many CleanTechnica readers. ORNL has always strived to be at the forefront of environmental research and understanding. In the 1960s, when it became a national concern, ORNL pioneered environmental science research . Today, with energy demand seeming destined to outstrip supply, ORNL is focusing its efforts on boosting energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. When proliferation of nuclear materials started becoming a global problem, policymakers looked to ORNL for help because of its expertise in this area.

But, there’s still work going on important to geopolitics and national security, too. Recently, as US science appeared to decline in comparison to other nations, ORNL made decisions to establish top-notch basic research facilities, such as the Spallation Neutron Source. When scientific computing and simulation began developing into a vital “third leg of research,” the laboratory constructed a facility able to accommodate the world’s largest supercomputer.

But Still, Race Cars? When Did ORNL Become Involved In Racing?

In a recent press release, ORNL announced that Marc-Antoni Racing licensed a set of patented energy storage technologies from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The primary focus is on components that would enable batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles to charge quickly while still being dense in terms of stored energy.

The New England-based company is exploring ways to move the racing industry away from fossil fuels while still providing drivers with the same dynamic and exhilarating experience that they love, so that’s right in line with ORNL’s goals and focuses.

One of the researchers, Dr. Sheng Dai, was as surprised as readers might be.

“Our research started at the fundamental level — I had no idea at that time that this could lead to something useful for racing,” Dai said. “Our previous research was focused on solving the problem of long charging for cell phone batteries. Batteries degrade and lose capacity to hold power. We wanted to understand the parasitic reaction mechanisms that degrade the battery. There is a lot of serendipity in discovery — we never quite know where it could go.” he said.

The ORNL team members behind the licensed patents for battery components — anode, cathode and electrolyte solution — are Battelle Distinguished Inventors Sheng Dai and Xiao-Guang Sun, corporate fellow Gabriel Veith, and staff scientist Parans Paranthaman. These accomplished individuals have received numerous accolades over their careers thus far, including R&D 100 Awards.

The team has discovered innovative lithium-ion batteries that can charge quickly, which is a major step forward in electric vehicle technology. These new batteries have the potential to revolutionize the EV industry and help reduce carbon emissions nationwide.

Paranthaman’s research yielded a cathode component that doesn’t lose function as it gets older. “We’ve been working toward this technology for the last several years,” he said. “The coating we developed could reduce degradation and improve the stability of battery cathode materials over time. This could potentially improve the shelf life of the battery.”

Marc-Antoni Racing was created by Ricardo Marc-Antoni Duncanson, who became passionate about racing after working on cars with a family member who raced them. After years spent at Audi, Duncanson decided to start his own company in 2017 as the electric vehicle industry started expanding. The business is currently based in Connecticut, but will soon be moving to Tennessee.

Because Tennessee has a well-established automotive manufacturing ecosystem and an industry growing around batteries for electric vehicles, it provides entrepreneurs focused on EVs with advantages.

“Tennessee is a great place to do what we’re doing — motorsports and high-performance cars. There’s a rich motorsports history and infrastructure in the region,” Duncanson said. He is investigating the possibility of collaborating with ORNL through RevV, a voucher program for Tennessee businesses that is funded by the state and managed by University of Tennessee and ORNL. Duncanson also believes that any upgrades done to racing vehicles will be rapidly adopted by the rest of the automotive industry, made possible by exposure to all of the cutting-edge companies in racing.

“Marc-Antoni Racing provides an exciting opportunity to test our technologies, de-risking further commercialization efforts to develop this technology for a range of industries,” said Susan Hubbard, ORNL’s deputy for science and technology. “In relocating to the Oak Ridge Corridor, Ric will be joining a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem focused on clean energy technology that is supported and strengthened by ORNL’s expertise and facilities.”

Racing Has Always Been A Great Way To Get New Automotive Technology

Technology developed for racing vehicles has been appearing on regular street cars since the 1800s.

Cars have countless features that make them much safer than they used to be, and many of these originated from racing. Even things we take for granted today like crumple zones, mirrors, and efficient tires all trace back to the racetrack. To some people, racing might seem foolish or environmentally-irresponsible, but the technologies developed there have actually saved thousands of lives. If anything, we’ve been slow in adopting other safety technologies from racing cars for use in regular street vehicles — things like 4- and 5-point harnesses could make a huge difference if more widely used.

So, it shouldn’t be any surprise that racing is still at the forefront of automotive technology, even if that means getting involved with research institutions that we don’t normally associate with racing and fun.

Featured image: Susan Hubbard, ORNL’s deputy for science and technology, and Ricardo Marc-Antoni Duncanson, founder of Marc-Antoni Racing, celebrated the company’s licensing of ORNL-developed technologies during an event on Oct. 17. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, US Dept. of Energy. Image provided by a US government entity, public domain.

 
 
 
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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things: https://twitter.com/JenniferSensiba

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