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Mon November 21, 2011
You're Probably Using Battelle Technology And Don't Even Know It
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
We take a lot of products and technology for granted, like bar codes, compact discs, even cruise control on cars. These products and hundreds of others would not exist if not for a non-profit whose name few people are familiar with. It's called Battelle Memorial Institute. It's one of the world's largest independent research and development groups. It's based in Central Ohio. Niala Boodhoo of the Midwest reporting project Changing Gears takes us to Columbus to a place where hundreds of companies go for R&D.
NIALA BOODHOO, BYLINE: Let's go back to the early 1960s. Xerox copies was so new that company took out ads to explain the invention.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL FOR XEROX COPIER)
ANNOUNCER: When we say the Xerox 914 makes copies on ordinary paper, we mean ordinary paper.
BOODHOO: It took two decades for patent attorney Chester Carlson to bring his prototype copy machine to the workplace. And it wouldn't have happened without scientists from Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus.
WILLIAM MADIA: There are so many technologies that came from Battelle.
BOODHOO: That's William Madia. He's in charge of the SLAC National Accelerator Lab at Stanford University. He has a parlor game he likes to play at dinner parties.
MADIA: Somebody at this table has a Battelle technology with them today. If you have a dollar bill, the security threads in a dollar bill are Battelle technology. If you've got a bottle of aspirin in your purse, and it's got a tamper-proof seal on it like they all do today, it's a Battelle technology.
BOODHOO: Before he went to SLAC, Madia used to work at Battelle. Now he works for one of its competitors, another national lab. The Department of Energy funds national labs all over the country, like Lawrence Livermore or Argonne National Laboratories. Battelle is involved in managing six DOE national labs - more than anyone else. And it also works with private companies, which are slashing their own research and development budgets.
Battelle scientists and engineers are working on everything from developing new gear for Navy SEALs to improving library science information systems to creating biofuels - in this case, turning sawdust into a fuel source.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
BOODHOO: The machine making this sound is a prototype. Assistants have loaded it up with sawdust and turned it on.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The biomass goes in the hopper...
BOODHOO: Zia Abdullah leads Battelle's bioenergy program.
ZIA ABDULLAH: What we are interested in is the potential of this technology to use waste biomass. So, for example, when a tree is removed, and its wood is used, let's say for industrial purposes, a significant part of that tree is not useful, let's say, for furniture or for building or construction. But it's perfectly fine for making fuel.
BOODHOO: Finding ideas that work commercially is an expensive proposition many companies don't invest much in anymore. But Battelle's research and development budget last year was six and a half billion dollars. Boeing used to have a research budget that big, but last year, it was cut 30 percent. Emphasizing research and development was exactly what steel tycoon Gordon Battelle had in mind for this organization. When he died young at age 40, after a routine appendectomy, Battelle left $1.5 million in his will to start a non-profit dedicated to scientific research. The trust began in 1929 and today, Battelle has 20,000 employees across the world.
Emery Oleochemicals makes glycerin in Cincinnati, Ohio. Company regional manager Mark Durchholtz says he'd never heard of Battelle until three years ago, when it asked Emery if it was interested in partnering to develop some new soy technology.
MARK DURCHOHHOLTZ: It's nice to know there's a place like Battelle that you can go to that can help you develop those ideas without having to add, you know, more people to your payroll.
BOODHOO: Battelle's Spencer Pugh says what Battelle does best is bridge the gap between ideas and reality - and it's willing to work with just about anyone.
SPENCER PUGH: When we talk to people, they go, well, would you work with a company like mine? We just laugh at that, because of course we would.
BOODHOO: Battelle's partnership with Emery has already led to an entirely new line of products. What's in it for Battelle? Royalties from the new sales, which the non-profit research and development group will put back into funding more research. For NPR news, I'm Niala Boodhoo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.