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Linking Lab Skills With Business Needs

LEE RIVERS has an answer for what national labs worried about their future should do: ``Just call 800-678-6882.''

That's the toll-free number for the National Technology Transfer Center. Its sole aim is to put businesses in touch with government scientists who can help solve their problems. ``What works is getting people-to-people contact,'' says Mr. Rivers, executive director of the federally funded center based here in Wheeling, W.V.

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The technical problems that business wants to solve range all over the place. For example:

* Farmers, worried about synthetic-cord fibers contaminating their wool and cotton, are getting help from the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in ultrasound. The lab is looking to see if ultrasound technology can detect and perhaps even destroy the fibers, which come from the cords used in automatic hay balers.

* A Pittsburgh-area company used the expertise of Lawrence Berkeley lab in California to develop an ion mill, a high-tech device that thins specimens so they can be viewed under an electron microscope.

* A California company is putting sensor technologies developed at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington to new uses in environmental monitoring and novel manufacturing techniques.

``We do get requests that you don't expect,'' says Jim Reed, the center's marketing director.

A Kansas City dry cleaner wanted help developing an ozone-free method of dry-cleaning clothes. It's now on the verge of signing a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the Department of Energy. A few weeks ago, a McDonald's outlet called with a refrigeration problem.

Since the center opened its doors two years ago, it has had more than 6,100 technical requests. The service is free.

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Eventually, the extensive federal lab system may have to be trimmed back, Mr. Rivers says. Meanwhile, ``we might as well get what's there.''

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