Originally created 05/15/04

Director leads site to success



AIKEN - To folks outside the nuclear arena, Dr. Todd Wright and what he does at the newly minted Savannah River National Laboratory probably remain relatively obscure.

Many people surely caught headlines last week announcing that the research wing of the Savannah River Site, formerly called the Savannah River Technology Center, had been honored with a weighty new designation as America's 12th national lab.

But they might not have known that it was one of the first places authorities called when the space shuttle Columbia exploded last year, or when the World Trade Center was leveled on Sept. 11, 2001.

Research at the National Laboratory, which Dr. Wright oversees, created a camera-mounted submarine that found pieces of Columbia in Texas waterways. The lab also constructed robots that probed rubble at the New York disaster in search of survivors.

It employs about 1,000 scientists and researchers who work on roughly 3,000 projects a year, Dr. Wright said during an interview at the lab this week.

Biologists there cultivated naturally occurring microbes designed to eat away nuclear waste found at SRS. The same microbes were used to devour oil left behind at a former gas station on Richland Avenue where the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce building was later constructed.

Savannah River lab scientists are studying how to solve multimillion-dollar design problems on hulking waste disposal units at SRS and employing expert glass blowers who construct small-scale replicas to help test the process.

Dr. Wright, 52, said scientists past and present deserved credit for the center's recognition as a national laboratory. This designation carries heavier clout in the competition for new DOE missions such as hydrogen fuel cell research, another area of expertise for scientists at the nation's newest national lab.

Though he shied from the spotlight, Dr. Wright's innate childhood curiosity from a young age led him to his position. He experimented with converting sound energy into electrical energy in the eighth grade. By his junior year in high school, Dr. Wright was experimenting with laser technology, just years after research into the field started.

"I was one of those students who really enjoyed learning, still do," he said. "That's what's fun about this, you're always learning and applying knowledge."

The director did his undergraduate, master's and doctorate work at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He was hired by DuPont company in 1981 and spent the next 20 years doing research work, mostly at SRS. He took over as director in early 2003, and now finds himself heading one of only 12 national laboratories in the country. Some said the designation was overdue.

National laboratory status gives the research center a seat at an elite table when the Department of Energy and other federal agencies hand out highly sought-after research assignments.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.