Story tips: Drought-resistant crops, hydropower, atomic AI AI, coolant control and e-waste recycling

Regulating the rhythms of light

Newswise — A team of scientists led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a theory that thylakoids, membranous networks essential to plant photosynthesis, also act as a defense mechanism to harsh growing conditions, which can help develop tougher plants.

Thylakoids contain grana, which are stacked coin-like structures that expand and contract as water flows in and out, like the bellows of an accordion. This action reverses the movement of protective cells, structures on plant leaves that act like accordion buttons, allowing carbon dioxide in and water vapor to escape.

These structures align the flow of electrons with the uptake of carbon during photosynthesis. Scientists wondered why such a complex network existed in hardier plants. ORNL researchers believe it helps plants withstand fluctuating conditions like too little or too much water and sunlight.

ORNL’s Lianhong Gu said the theory was developed when scientists studied photosynthesis extensively and will help improve models of the global carbon cycle. – Stephanie C


Caption: The bellows-like action of the thylakoid membrane within plant chloroplasts coordinates the flow of electrons to power photosynthesis. A team of scientists led by ORNL theorized that thylakoids could help plants respond to stressful growing conditions such as drought. Credit: Nathan Armstead and Jacqueline Demink/ORNL, US Department of Energy

The facts behind hydroelectricity

To further the potential benefits of the country’s hydropower resources, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed and maintained a comprehensive digital hydropower platform called HydroSource that informs key stakeholders about development and operating costs, environmental concerns, and licensing requirements.

Hydropower accounts for approximately 7% of all electricity generated in the United States and provides rapid start-up capabilities during blackouts and the ability to store energy for periods of high demand.

HydroSource provides up-to-date information on hydropower facilities and infrastructure, models and visualizations for future development, and analytical tools to better understand how and where hydropower can be implemented across the United States.

“We created this digital platform to enable stakeholders, including hydropower developers and operators, non-governmental agencies and advocacy groups, and policy makers to make data-driven decisions,” said Debjani Singh of ORNL. “We all want the same thing – to develop reliable and sustainable energy while protecting the environment.” – Mimi McHale


Caption: The Milton Hill Dam on the Clinch River in eastern Tennessee can generate up to 79 megawatts of power for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Credit: Jason Richards/ORNL, US Department of Energy

Automation of neutron experiments using artificial intelligence

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are developing the first-of-its-kind artificial intelligence device for neutron scattering called Hyperspectral Tomography, or HyperCT. The fully automated, AI-powered platform can rotate a sample in almost any direction, eliminating the need for human intervention and significantly reducing long trial times.

The design allows scientists to use neutron scattering, a technique that measures atoms within materials, to complete characterization of samples without stopping to make adjustments. The artificial intelligence software determines the optimal angles for measurement based on the shape of the sample, which greatly reduces the amount of unnecessary data that can slow down experimental results.

“With just a few input parameters, HyperCT will give us nearly four times more accurate data than traditional methods,” said Hasina Belhawks of ORNL.

Once the technology is developed, it can be used on any neutron scattering instrument, which will greatly increase the number of experiments and improve the quality of scientific data that only neutrons can provide. (video)


Caption: The AI-powered HyperCT platform has three primary points of articulation that can rotate a sample in nearly any direction, eliminating the need for human intervention and significantly reducing long trial times. Credit: Genevieve Martin, ORNL/US Dept. of Energy

steady as it goes and flows

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers have shown that microchannel heat exchangers in HVAC units can keep refrigerant evenly and continuously distributed by introducing a device called a piezoelectric magnetic actuator, or PEDMA.

Heat exchangers are shells or tubes that use metal tubes to transfer heat from one place to another. In contrast, a micro-channel exchanger uses a maze of smaller paths, making it low in weight and lower cost while providing superior performance. However, these small ducts can cause a misdistribution of refrigerant, which puts additional stress on the compressor.

In one study, the team developed a prototype PEDMA input consisting of 3D-printed resin parts and tiny permanent magnets.

“The magnets change the geometry inside the exchanger once they are inserted into the device,” said Joseph Rendall of ORNL. “The test showed a significant improvement in refrigerant flow. This represents a new method for controlling flow distribution in micro-channel heat exchangers.”


Caption: Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers have developed a device called a Piezoelectric Magnetic Actuator, or PEDMA, that can be inserted into the head of a micro-channel heat exchanger to keep refrigerant flowing evenly and operate an HVAC unit efficiently. Credit: ORNL, US Department of Energy

Save electronic waste scraps

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Momentum Technologies have piloted an industrial-scale process of recycling valuable materials into the millions of tons of e-waste generated annually in the United States.

Rare earth elements, or rare earth entities, are highly needed strategic resources but with limited supplies of advanced clean energy and defense technologies. Local pathways are needed to secure supply chains.

The researchers previously demonstrated a method for recycling scrap permanent magnets in consumer electronics using membrane solvent extraction. Now the technology has made a decisive step towards publishing. The system has been developed to achieve high purity separation processes, as reported in advanced engineering materials.

“The system is modular and scalable with a small footprint and minimal waste,” said Ramesh Bhavi of ORNL.

“We are working with partners to commercialize and explore applications for recycling rare earth elements used in growing technology areas, such as wind power and electric vehicles,” said Syed Islam of ORNL.


Caption: Ramesh Bhav of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and his team collaborated with Momentum Technologies to develop a scalable, modular system for recycling scrap permanent magnets into e-waste. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, US Department of Energy

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