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
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
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
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. …