By: Mike Pare

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — It’s a project mysteriously called “Darknet.”  The aim by Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists is to get the nation’s power grid off the public internet and make it less vulnerable to cyberattacks, and it’s an effort in which EPB (Electric Power Board) in Chattanooga is lending a hand.

The Darknet collaboration is cited by Chattanooga and ORNL officials as one example of how linkups are growing between the world-class lab and the Scenic City.

“As much as we’re doing now, we’ve just scratched the surface,” said EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson, who was part of a group of Chattanooga business people and others to visit the Oak Ridge lab last week to spur more ties.

From cybersecurity to 3-D printing to electric vehicle charging, the connections are increasing, officials say, particularly since ORNL opened an office in Chattanooga about 16 months ago.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R- Tennessee, believes the tie-ups will rapidly continue, and he has a goal of a Department of Energy standalone building eventually opening in Chattanooga to focus on energy independence.  “The first major step was getting Oak Ridge in Chattanooga,” he said, adding that now both sides want ongoing growth.

Fleischmann said he’s having conversations with DOE about a physical building which he termed a potential “flagship” of the Oak Ridge-Chattanooga partnership.  “We’ll see where it goes,” said the congressman who led the Chattanooga delegation to the lab about an hour and a half away by car.

Jeff Cornett, ORNL’s manager of industrial partnerships and economic development, said he has dealt with more than 50 Chattanooga area companies since the office opened in the EPB headquarters building on Market Street downtown.

The list of businesses range from 3-D printing company Branch Technology to carpet machinery manufacturer Tuftco to water distribution products maker Mueller, he said.  Cornett, who comes to Chattanooga about one day a week, said innovation and transformation are “at the forefront.”

Dr. Thomas Zacharia, who became ORNL’s director in July 2017, said the work of the lab’s Chattanooga office will continue.  He termed Chattanooga “a community with a sense of purpose” of which ORNL has to be a part.  Zacharia, too, cited the partnership with EPB to modernize the nation’s electric grid, which he said is a priority of U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Last fall, scientists told a U.S. Senate committee about efforts such as Darknet to build a more secure system. As recently as last summer, they said, reports surfaced that hackers thought to be connected to the Russian government breached more than a dozen American power plants.

Stacey Prowell, ORNL’s chief cybersecurity research scientist, told the Chattanooga group that the objective is to shield critical infrastructure and set up protected links across the electrical grid network.  “It’s a priority because of national security,” said Prowell, adding that he’s doing “a lot of different things with EPB.”

One part of the sprawling ORNL complex the Chattanooga group saw is the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, which Fleischmann said he has invited President Donald Trump to visit.  It’s seen as helping industry adopt new manufacturing technologies to reduce energy and greenhouse gas emissions, lower production cost, and create added products and opportunities for high-paying jobs.  “This is the best example we have where we connect with industry,” said Jeff Smith, ORNL’s deputy for operations.

Christy Gillenwater, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive, said it’s imperative that more industries and businesses in the region to understand what ORNL presents.  “The opportunities are boundless,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Skjellum, director of UTC’s SimCenter, said he sees Chattanooga companies potentially using advanced manufacturing in the area of tooling, for example.  A key for applying ORNL’s science will be workforce training, Skjellum said.  “The workforce has to be ready,” he said. “UTC is doing that.”

At the National Transportation Research Center at ORNL, group leader Barak Ozpineci said Volkswagen officials were coming in for a meeting this month to examine the possibility of electric vehicle charging. They were looking at burying coils into a test truck near Chattanooga State Community College, which would be used to test wireless charging of electric vehicle batteries, he said.

“We’d like to do that but it’s not finalized yet,” Ozpineci said.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.


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