The DOE’s Gadget Guru

At a secretive government facility, one inventor is given free rein.
The Banshee (top): Thrown into a rioting mob, this acoustic grenade will send people running with a 130-decibel squeal. Status: Still in design. Infrared Sensor (bottom left): Although no larger than a lapel microphone, this warning device will alert soldiers to nearby infrared-enabled enemies. Status: Working prototype. Hospital in a Box (bottom right): Thanks to inventive thinking by Bzorgi, this portable two-bed surgical suite unfolds with the touch of a button, a job that used to require up to 10 people. Status: Prototype ready by this fall. Illustration by Jameson Simpson

The Banshee is a 3-ounce rubberized acoustic grenade inspired by the notorious 1993 riots in Mogadishu. It disperses unruly crowds with an ear-piercing 130-decibel squeal, and is just one of countless ideas percolating inside the brain of Fariborz Bzorgi, a senior staff engineer at the
Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Never heard of Y-12? There’s a reason. This DOE facility has been cloaked in secrecy since it began making weapons-grade uranium for the Manhattan Project during World War II (they focus more on dismantling nukes today). It takes four months of hoop-jumping to get in, and I have to get past two armed security checkpoints to get to Bzorgi, one of the most prolific engineers at
Y-12’s National Prototype Center. This is invention central for 2,500 scientists and craftsmen who create one-of-a-kind products for government and industry, including the Apollo mission moonbox and the Seawolf submarine propulsion system. “Bzorgi is one of the few guys who gets to dream stuff up on his own,” says Y-12’s Mike Monnett.

Take, for example, the center’s new portable medical shelter. The military needed one for the frontlines with a hard floor and full nuclear, biological and chemical protection. Bzorgi’s team also incorporated two surgical beds and blood gutters, and made it bulletproof. He alone, however, added the crowning touch: a button. Pushing it activates a winch that drops the floor and an electromechanical assembly that raises the ceiling. A job that used to require 10 people now requires one.

Such inventiveness often comes in unexpected flashes (the one-touch button came to him in the middle of the night), but his projects are often inspired by Broad Agency Announcements — federal solicitations for technology. Such was the case for his tactical imaging sensor. The DOD wanted a small, wireless camera for remote surveillance. Bzorgi’s answer was a flashlight-size device with a solar panel that unfurls like a Chinese fan. It’s still in the design phase, but the final version will transmit high-resolution images from a distance of up to 10 miles.

Bzorgi’s track record stretches back 30 years. At engineering giant Bechtel, he created an ultrahigh-pressure compressor that supplies air to wind tunnels at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It replaced the aging facility conceived by Wernher von Braun. His robot cleaned radioactive sludge from Three Mile Island, and he developed a solar-powered device for cleaning oil-tainted soil. Even his home garage looks like a factory, with milling machines, steel cutters and lasers. “One of my neighbors wants me to perfect the self-guided lawnmower,” he says with a fleeting smile. “Maybe that’s my next project.”