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Plant gets new start

After three years of talking about it, the Department of Energy's Largo plant is producing new products with some big commercial potential.

The plant, which once made triggers for nuclear bombs, already has made prototypes of a device that could change the way cornea transplants are done.

Work is beginning on two other products that also could have a big impact. One, a window coating to screen out ultraviolet rays, might be able to cut air-conditioning use substantially. The other, an inexpensive sewage treatment device for boats, might reduce marine pollution.

"We're going to show the rest of the world how to convert from military to peaceful uses," said U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach.

Young was at the plant Thursday for the ceremonial signing of an agreement establishing a Technology Deployment Center at the plant, paid for with money he pushed through Congress. The initial grant is $750,000, with another $10-million to come.

The University of South Florida and Martin Marietta Specialty Components Inc., the plant's operator, will run the center. The idea is to merge USF research capabilities with Martin Marietta production capabilities to build and test prototype products.

The first cooperative effort brought together the ideas of USF eye specialists with Martin Marietta's high-precision production techniques. The device they built is used to cut the cornea from an eyeball taken from an organ donor who died. The cut cornea has tabs around the edges that can be tucked into slits in the eyeball of the cornea recipient, eliminating the need for sutures.

The next step is for eye surgeons to test the devices and evaluate whether the new style of surgery is superior to the technique now being used.

The center expects to get involved in projects across a variety of industries and scientific fields. Areas identified as having potential include electric battery development, microelectronics packaging, robotics, optoelectronics, welding technology, biotechnology, environmental studies and marine engineering.

"Here at Martin Marietta there is a tremendous wealth of technical capability," Young said. "The high-tech equipment here would have cost an awful lot of money to re-create."

Some projects may result in the formation of new companies. Others are expected to be sponsored by companies interested in commercializing the new products. Information about the center is available from William Swartz at 541-8320 in Largo or Richard Streeter at 974-5254 in Tampa.