This month marks the 28th anniversary of the establishment
of the U.S. Department of Energy. On Aug. 4, 1977, President Jimmy Carter
signed into law the Department of Energy Organization Act, which consolidated
various research and administrative programs within the federal government—creating
a single Cabinet-level division responsible for ensuring the maintenance and
future development of reliable energy sources for the United States.

Thrilling, I realize. But for those of you unimpressed by
this little anniversary, consider this: The DOE currently has oversight of some
of the most advanced and renowned research laboratories in the world,

  • Argonne National Laboratory, home
    of the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron-radiation research facility
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory,
    home of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
  • Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory,
    home of the Tevatron—the world’s highest energy particle accelerator
  • Idaho National Engineering and
    Environmental Laboratory
    , home to Experimental Breeder Reactor Number
    1 (EBR-1)—the world’s first nuclear power plant
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory,
    home of the Manhattan Project and perhaps the premier multidisciplinary
    lab in the world
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the
    world’s first facility for the mass production of enriched nuclear fuel,
    including weapons materials for the Manhattan Project
  • Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory,
    the leading institution in contemporary nuclear fusion energy research,
    including the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor and the National Spherical Torus
  • Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,
    which together are responsible for the development of the U.S. nuclear
    weapons stockpile
  • Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
    , which is one of the most revered particle accelerator facilities on
  • Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano
    caldera now controversially under development as a repository for spent
    nuclear materials

So, to those of you who think the Department of Energy is
merely an outdated relic created as a knee-jerk reaction to the 1973 energy
crisis, think again. The DOE is one of the primary drivers of physics and
applied sciences research in the world, employing thousands of the best
scientists and engineers on Earth. Who could ask for more?

Apparently, the U.S. Department of Energy can. The DOE is
currently undertaking the construction of not one, but five new laboratories all
concerned with one particular field of technology—one that may provide the 21st
century with the same quantum leap forward in technical innovation that nuclear
power and computing technology offered to the scientists of the 20th century.


What single field of technical research is the impetus
behind the construction of not one, but five new U.S. Department of Energy
Laboratories—a significant investment considering that the DOE already operates
more than a dozen of the most advanced and prolific research labs in the world?

Apparently, size does matter: The pursuit of nanotechnology
is the objective of the five new DOE labs, which operate under the umbrella
designation of Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs).

The DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences describes the
NSRCs as “research facilities for the synthesis, processing, and
fabrication of nanoscale materials,” meaning they’ll concern themselves
with the development of tools and substances at the molecular and sub-molecular
levels. Put simply, the smaller, the better.

The DOE is building each of the five new NSRCs as adjuncts
to existing DOE labs.

Collectively, these facilities’ main objective is converting
nanotechnology from science fiction to science fact. To do that, they’re
starting with the basics—nanoscale building blocks.

Before you can assemble machines that can slip between
molecules and into living cells, you have to know what you can build those
machines out of, and you need to have a reliable, large-scale (no pun intended)
process for synthesizing those materials. The NSRCs are learning to create those
building blocks and researching how to put them together in meaningful,
practical ways.

Appropriately, the DOE’s Nanoscale Science Research Centers
are but one part of a larger nanotechnology whole. The National Nanotechnology
Initiative is a massive federal project that involves 23 government agencies,
of which the DOE is merely one.

Everyone from NASA to the Environmental Protection Agency to
the Department of Defense to the Department of Agriculture (to say nothing of
the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office) is getting in on the nanotech act, and
institutions of higher learning are benefiting from a fair number of university
research grants as well. That should make for some incredible technical
innovations over the next few years, not to mention some high-tech Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the July 20 edition of Geek
Trivia, “(Nu)clear
to the moon.”
TechRepublic member—and devoted quibbler—Bill Ward tried to catch me in a basic
math error when it came to adding up the number of nuclear power sources that
have operated on the moon.

“1 (ALRH) + 5 (Apollo [missions] 12, 14, 15, 16, 17) is
six. I figured it up before looking
at the answer and was astonished when you said five, looking to see if one of the later Apollo missions failed to
have the instrument.”

Your math isn’t wrong, dear reader, just your definition of
a power source. I didn’t count the Apollo Lunar Radioisotopic Heater (ALRH), as
it was a heat source—not a power source. Installed within the lunar
seismograph, the ALRH did not power the device; it merely kept the mechanism’s
parts from freezing up. Thus, only Apollo missions 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 left
nuclear power sources on the moon,
constituting a total of five. Sorry if I failed to making my reasoning clear in
the article, so keep those quibbles coming!

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.