Weapons Lab Shifts to Peacetime Projects : Military: With the Cold War’s end, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are applying their research skills to civilian needs.
For a scientist at a nuclear weapons research lab, Ken Turteltaub seems remarkably unmoved by the fact that his lab is teeming with mice.
But these are no regular rodents. These are specially engineered creatures Turteltaub is using to hunt cancer-causing agents. One day, Turteltaub and his colleagues hope, the mice will track down something else: research revenues.
After 40 years of honing the nation’s military edge, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are on a new mission. They’re looking for a market for their martial smarts.
“We’ve sort of done the nuclear weapons thing,” says Roger Werne, one of the people overseeing Livermore’s efforts to make a living in the post-Cold War world. “Employees are saying, ‘OK, what can we do next?’ ”
The push for what the lab calls “technology transfer” began in 1986 with one license for $28,000 in royalties and two cooperative agreements for $400,000 from government and industry.
Last year, the lab issued 25 licenses for royalties of $300,000 and 20 cooperative agreements for $34 million.
Livermore’s goal is to bring in $100 million a year, about 10% of its $1.1-billion budget, Werne said.
In addition to the mice, projects under way include using X-ray weapons technology to improve mammogram analysis, and superplastic steel, a stretchable metal being developed by Livermore scientists and industry.
“The lab is coming out of its shell,” said Werne, who is head of engineering.
However, Livermore is hardly out of the gun business. About 60% of the lab’s budget goes to weapons research, two-thirds of that nuclear, and security is strict at the sprawling compound east of San Francisco.
But there are signs of change.
Some of Livermore’s projects take the direct swords-to-plowshares approach, such as a substance designed for armor plating that has been tried out on golf-club heads.
Others put a new spin on the lab’s highly specialized instruments.
In Turteltaub’s lab, scientists are using an accelerated mass spectrometer, or AMS, to track toxic substances.
The AMS can count radioactive carbon 14 atom by atom. By feeding his mice a special diet, Turteltaub gets rid of a lot of the naturally occurring carbon 14, creating a background against which it stands out more clearly.
To track carcinogens, Turteltaub first tags the toxic substance with carbon 14 and measures the amount in the diet. Then he takes samples of blood, urine, organs, etc., and runs them through the AMS, a huge system of tubes, gauges and tanks that fills a hangar-like building.
The amount of carbon 14 found shows what was expelled from the body and what was left. It also pinpoints where the substance accumulated.
The sensitivity of the AMS means the rodents can be fed small amounts. For instance, to check for carcinogens in cooked meat, mice dine on mouse-sized burgers. In conventional cancer studies, “you may feed the equivalent of a cow per day per mouse,” Turteltaub said.
It will be some time before the mice start bringing home the bacon. But another experiment, the superplastic steel of Oleg D. Sherby and colleague Jeffrey Wadsworth, is already being researched by industry.
For many of the scientists, the business world is uncharted territory.
“This whole conversion thing is a very difficult process, in part because we’re not very good at it. We have a lot a learn,” said Clint Logan. He is working on a project in which X-ray technology once used for experiments in underground testing is being used to improve mammogram analysis.
Some question whether Livermore can make the adjustment to life without the Soviet Union.
Peace activists say the Nuclear Testing Moratorium Act, which bans nuclear tests through next July, should put the labs out of the weapons business. The law allows the United States to resume tests later, but they must be stopped permanently by 1997.
“The secrecy has to end,” said Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation. Decisions on Livermore’s future should be made with public input, and in general, “we want it to become non-classified, civilian--doing environmentally sound, socially beneficial programs,” she said.
Lab officials say it’s not that simple.
For one thing, the tests allowed through 1996 will keep the lab busy, said Ron Cochran, the facility’s executive officer. And there’s the peacetime job of weapons dismantling and the problem of what to do with the nuclear material.
Gib Marguth, technology transfer program leader, said the jump isn’t that drastic once people realize how industry works.
“My personal belief is that one of the strong needs of the country is to make sure that we do not allow these national labs to be wasted,” he said. “They really are crown jewels of technology.”