From Swords to Plowshares with Demand for Weapons Research Declining, US National Labs Seek Peaceful Applications

Article excerpt

THEY probably won't help you pick slivers out of your thumb. But "light tweezers" made of crossed laser beams are the sort of invention that United States national laboratories hope will help them prosper in the new world economy.

With the end of the cold war, demand for the principal labs' main product - nuclear weapons - is falling off sharply. Laboratories in Los Alamos and Sandia, N.M., and Lawrence Livermore, Calif., are all rushing to reposition themselves as repositories of technology that can help US industry stay competitive in the world marketplace.

This shift has been under way for some time. But the election of Bill Clinton, who promises to change the focus of government research from defense to civilian uses, will likely hasten it along.

"There's going to be a big push for the transfer of technology to the private sector," says an official at the Department of Energy, which funds the US national lab structure.

Take light tweezers as an example. Developed at the Los Alamos lab, the "tweezers" are laser beams focused beyond razor sharpness and aimed by a series of mirrors. They're so sensitive they can pick up a single living human cell and hold it with the pressure of light.

The tweezers are potentially valuable tools in biotechnology and laser surgery. Under an agreement with the lab, the technology is being hammered into the shape of a useful product by an Albuquerque, N.M., company, Cell Robotics Inc. The estimated cost of a final system is $25,000 to $40,000.

"We're looking at critical industries," says John Umbarger, deputy director of the Los Alamos Industrial Partnership Center. "We want high-value-added jobs and products here in the US."

The light tweezers, along with a number of other Los Alamos inventions, have won an "R & D 100" award from * & D Magazine, Mr. Umbarger points out. Over the past five years, Los Alamos has won 28 of the annual prizes - more than any other organization. This year the lab won four, for technologies ranging from portable hazardous-materials detectors to computer systems that help in speech therapy.

The Industrial Partnership Center itself is the forum Los Alamos uses to improve its ability to transfer technology to the private sector. Besides serving as a business office for patenting and licensing laboratory inventions, the Partnership Center manages co-research agreements between companies and the lab. Los Alamos has 27 of these cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) under way, with each side putting up half the cost for the work.

Los Alamos director Sig Hecker proposed CRADAs several years ago as a means to get industry aid in speeding the transformation of lab ideas into practical products. …