United States Naval Research Laboratory

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Naval Research Laboratory
Naval Research Laboratory Logo.png
U.S. Naval Research Laboratory logo
Active 1923–present
Country United States
Branch Navy
Type Research and development
Size 2,538 civilian
86 military (2015)
Part of Office of Naval Research
Commander CAPT Mark Bruington
Director of Research Dr. Edward R. Franchi

The United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is the corporate research laboratory for the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps and conducts a wide range of basic scientific research, applied research, technological development and prototyping. A few of the laboratory's current specialties include plasma physics, space physics, materials science, and tactical electronic warfare. NRL is one of the first US Government scientific R&D laboratories, having opened in 1923 at the instigation of Thomas Edison, and is currently under the Office of Naval Research.[1] NRL's research expenditures are approximately $1.1 billion per year.[2]


Part of the Naval Research Laboratory main campus in Washington, DC. The prominent satellite dish is often used as a symbol of the laboratory.

The Naval Research Laboratory conducts a wide variety of basic and scientific research and technological development of importance to the Navy. It has a long history of scientific breakthroughs and technological achievements dating back to its foundation in 1923.[3] In many instances the laboratory's contributions to military technology are declassified decades after those technologies have become widely adopted. In 2011, NRL researchers published 1,398 unclassified scientific & technical articles, book chapters and conference proceedings.[2] In 2008, the NRL was ranked #3 among all U.S. institutions holding nanotechnology-related patents, behind IBM and the University of California.[4]

Current areas of research at NRL include:[2]

  • Advanced radio, optical and infrared sensors
  • Autonomous systems
  • Computer science and artificial intelligence
  • Directed energy technology
  • Electronic electro-optical device technology
  • Electronic warfare
  • Enhanced maintainability, reliability and survivability technology
  • Environmental effects on naval systems
  • Imaging research and systems
  • Information technology
  • Marine geosciences
  • Materials
  • Meteorology
  • Ocean acoustics
  • Oceanography
  • Space systems and technology
  • Surveillance and sensor technology
  • Undersea technology

Among a wide range of other specific topics and technologies NRL is currently researching: armor for munitions in transport, high-powered lasers, remote explosives detection, spintronics, the dynamics of explosive gas mixtures, electromagnetic Railgun technology, detection of hidden nuclear materials, graphene devices, high-power extremely high frequency (35–220 GHz) amplifiers, acoustic lensing, information-rich orbital coastline mapping, arctic weather forecasting, global aerosol analysis & prediction, high-density plasmas, Millisecond pulsars, broadband laser data links, virtual mission operation centers, battery technology, photonic crystals, carbon nanotube electronics, electronic sensors, mechanical nano-resonators, solid-state chemical sensors, organic opto-electronics, neural-electronic interfaces and self-assembling nanostructures.[2][5]

The laboratory houses a wide range of R&D facilities. The most recent additions include the NRL Nanoscience Institute's 5000sqft Class 100 nanofabrication cleanroom[6] and quiet measurement labs and the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR).[7]

Notable accomplishments[edit]

This building on NRL's main campus features prominent radomes on its roof.

Space Sciences[edit]

The Naval Research Laboratory has been a crucial piece of the United States space program. Project Vanguard, the first American satellite program, tasked NRL with the design, construction and launch of an artificial satellite, which was accomplished in 1958. Vanguard I, designed and built at NRL, was the first solar-powered satellite. As of 2013, Vanguard I is still in orbit, making it the longest-lived man-made satellite. Vanguard II was the first satellite to observe the Earth's cloud cover and therefore the first meteorological satellite. NRL pioneered the study of the sun Ultraviolet and X-Ray spectrum. Along with Project Vanguard, NRL also designed the first satellite tracking system, Minitrack, which became the prototype for future satellite tracking networks. NRL's recently declassified Galactic Radiation and Background I (GRAB I) was the first U.S. intelligence satellite, intercepting Soviet radio communications from space. The Global Positioning System (GPS) was invented at NRL and tested by NRL prototype satellites Timation I and Timation II in 1967 and 1969,[3] and the first operational GPS satellite, Timation IV (NTS-II) was designed and constructed at NRL.[8]


The Marine Meteorology Division, which is located in Monterey, California, produces satellite imagery and forecast models of worldwide weather and makes publicly available imagery from 18 weather imaging satellites.[9] NRL's spacecraft development program continues today with the TacSat-4 experimental tactical reconnaissance & communication satellite. In addition to spacecraft design, NRL also designs and operates research instruments, such as the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph Experiment (LASCO)[10] aboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). NASA's Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) was tested at NRL spacecraft testing facilities.[11] NRL scientists have most recently contributed leading research to the study of novas[12][13] and gamma ray bursts.[14][15][16][17]

Materials Science[edit]

NRL has a long history of contributions to materials science, dating back to the use of Industrial radiography with gamma rays for the nondestructive inspection of metal casings and welds on Navy vessels beginning in the 1920s. Modern mechanical fracture mechanics were pioneered at NRL and were subsequently applied to solve fracture problems in Navy vessels, commercial aircraft and Polaris missiles. That knowledge is in widespread use today in applications ranging from design of nuclear reactors to aircraft, submarines and toxic material storage tanks.[3] NRL developed the synthesis of high-purity GaAs crystals used in a myriad of modern high frequency transceivers including cellular phones, satellite communication systems, commercial and military radar systems including those aboard all US combat aircraft and ARM, Phoenix, AIM-9L and AMRAAM missiles. NRL's GaAs inventions were licensed by Rockwell, Westinghouse, Texas Instruments and Hughes Research.[18] High-purity GaAs is also used for high-efficiency solar cells like those aboard NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers currently on Mars.[19]

Fundamental aspects of stealth technology were developed at NRL, including the radar absorption mechanisms in ferrite-containing materials.[18] Metal bearing surface treatments using Cr ion implantation researched at NRL nearly tripled the service life of Navy turbine engine parts and was adopted for Army helicopter parts as well.[18] Fluorinated polyurethane coatings developed at NRL are used to line fuel storage tanks throughout the US Navy, reducing leakage and environmental and fuel contamination. The same polymer films are used in Los Angeles-class submarine radomes to repel water and enable radar operation soon after surfacing.[18]

Scientists at NRL frequently contribute theoretical and experimental research on novel materials,[20][21][22] particularly magnetic materials[23][24][25][26][27][28] and nanomaterials[29][30][31][32] and thermoplastic.[33]


The first modern U.S. radar was invented and developed at NRL in Washington, DC in 1922. By 1939, NRL installed the first operational radar aboard the USS New York, in time for radar to contribute to naval victories of the Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal. NRL then further developed over-the-horizon radar as well as radar data displays.[3] NRL's Radar Division[34] continues important research & development contributing to US Navy and US Department of Defense capabilities.

Tactical Electronic Warfare[edit]

NRL's Tactical Electronic Warfare (TEW) Division[35] is responsible for research and development in support of the Navy's tactical electronic warfare requirements and missions. These include electronic warfare support measures, electronic countermeasures, and supporting counter-countermeasures, as well as studies, analyses, and simulations for determining and improving the performance of Electronic Warfare systems. NRL TEW includes aerial, surface, and ground EW within its scope. NRL is responsible for the identification, friend or foe (IFF) system and a number of other advances.

Information Security[edit]

The Information Technology Division[36] has a world-class information security R&D group, which is where the IETF's IP Security (IPsec) protocols were originally developed. The Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP) protocol developed at NRL is widely used for virtual private network (VPN) connections worldwide.[37] The projects developed by the laboratory often become mainstream applications without public awareness of the developer; an example in computer science is onion routing, the core principle of the anonymizing Tor software.[38]

Nuclear Research[edit]

Nuclear power research was initiated at NRL as early as 1939,[3] six years before the first atomic bomb, for the purpose of powering submarines. Uranium enrichment methods sponsored by NRL over the course of World War II were adopted by the Manhattan Project[39] and guided the design of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Uranium enrichment plant. NRL is currently developing laser focusing techniques aimed at inertial confinement fusion technology.[40]

Physical Sciences[edit]

After World War II, the laboratory developed modern synthetic lubricants[41][42] initially for use in the Navy's jet aircraft but they were subsequently adopted by the commercial jet industry.[3] In the late 1960s, NRL researched low-temperature physics, achieving for the first time a temperature within one millionth of a degree of absolute zero in 1967. In 1985 two scientists at the laboratory, Herbert A. Hauptman and Jerome Karle, won the Nobel Prize for devising direct methods employing X-ray diffraction analysis in the determination of crystal structures.[43] Their methods form the basis for the computer packages used in pharmaceutical labs and research institutions worldwide for the analysis of more than 10,000 new substances each year.[44]

NRL has most recently published research on quantum computing,[45][46] quantum dots,[47] plasma shockwaves,[48] thermodynamics of liquids,[49] modeling of oil spills[50] and other topics.


Naval Research Laboratory seal used before 2016

The laboratory is divided into four research directorates, one financial directorate, and one executive directorate. All the directorates are headquartered in Washington, D.C. Many directorates have other facilities elsewhere, primarily at either the Stennis Space Center in Bay St Louis, Mississippi or in Monterey, California.


Most NRL staff are civilians in the Civil Service, with a relatively small number of Navy enlisted personnel or officers. In addition, there are some support contractors that work on-site at NRL. As of December 31, 2015, across all NRL locations, NRL had 2540 civilian employees (i.e., not including civilian contractors).[51] On the same date, there were 35 military officers on-board NRL and 58 enlisted on-board NRL, most of whom are with NRL's VXS-1 Scientific Flight Detachment, which is located aboard the Patuxent River ('Pax River') Naval Air Station (NAS) in southern Maryland.[52]

NRL has special authority to use a Pay-Band pay system instead of using the traditional General Schedule (GS) pay system for its civilian employees.[53][54] This gives NRL more ability to pay employees based on performance and merit, rather than time-in-grade or some other seniority metric. There are several different pay-band groups at NRL, each being for different categories of civilian employees. As of December 31, 2015, NRL had 1615 civilian scientists/engineers in the NP pay system, 103 civilian technicians in the NR pay system, 383 civilian administrative specialists/professionals in the NO pay system, and 238 civilian administrative support staff in the NC pay system.[55]

NRL scientists & engineers typically are in the (NP) pay group in NRL's Pay Band system.[56] The NP-II pay band is equivalent to GS-5 Step 1 through GS-10 Step 10. The NP-III pay band is equivalent to GS-11 Step 1 through GS-13 Step 10. NRL's Pay Band IV corresponds to the GS-14 Step 1 to GS-15 Step 10 pay grades, inclusive, while NRL's Pay Band V can pay above GS-15 Step 10 and corresponds to the Senior Technologist (ST) pay grade elsewhere in the US Government's Civil Service. A new graduate scientist or engineer with a Bachelor of Science degree typically is hired with a salary equivalent to a GS-7, while a new graduate scientist or engineer with a Master of Science degree typically at the equivalent of a GS-11.

According to the NRL Fact Book (2016), NRL had 870 employees with a Doctorate, 417 employees with a Master's Degree as their highest degree, and 576 employees with a Bachelor's degree as their highest degree.[57]

The laboratory also hosts post-doctoral researchers and was voted #15 in the Best Places to Work PostDocs 2013 survey.[58]

Research Directorates[edit]

The four research directorates within NRL are:

  • The Systems Directorate (Code 5000) is responsible for performing a range of activities from basic research through engineering development to expand the operational capabilities of the US Navy. There are four research divisions: Radar, Information Technology, Optical Sciences, and Tactical Electronic Warfare.
  • The Materials Science and Component Technology Directorate (Code 6000) carries out a range of materials research with the aim of better understanding of the materials in order to develop improved and advanced materials for use by the US Navy. There are seven research divisions: Laboratory for the Structure of Matter, Chemistry, Material Science & Technology, Laboratory for Computational Physics and Fluid Dynamics, Plasma Physics, Electronics Science & Technology, and the Center for Biomolecular Science & Engineering.
  • The Ocean and Atmospheric Science and Technology Directorate (Code 7000) performs research in the fields of acoustics, remote sensing, oceanography, marine geosciences, marine meteorology, and space science.[59] There are six research divisions: Acoustics, Remote Sensing, Oceanography, Marine Geosciences, Marine Meteorology, and Space Science.
  • The mission of the Naval Center for Space Technology (NCST) (Code 8000) is to preserve and enhance a strong space technology base and provide expert assistance in the development and acquisition of space systems for naval missions. There are two research divisions: Space Systems Development and Spacecraft Engineering.

Support Directorates[edit]

The two support directorates are:

  • The Executive Directorate operations are directed by the Commander of the NRL, who typically is a US Navy Captain. In addition to management functions, the Directorate also manages the Nanoscience Institute (NSI), founded in April 2001 as a multidisciplinary nanotechnology research institute at the intersections of the fields of materials, electronics and biology. Scientific Development Squadron ONE (VXS-1),[60] located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, which provides airborne research facilities to NRL as well as other agencies of the US Government, is also run out of the Executive Directorate.
  • The Business Operations Directorate provides program management for the business programs which support the scientific directorates of NRL. It provides contracting, financial management and supply expertise to the scientific projects.


Part of the NRL complex seen from the air above the Potomac River in 2012. The part of the campus shown contains the oldest five buildings on the campus.
NRL Scientific Development Squadron ONE NP-3D Orion of VXS-1.

The main campus of NRL is in Washington, DC, near the southernmost part of the District. It is on the Potomac River and is immediately south of (but is not part of) Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. This campus is immediately north of the Blue Plains site of the DC Water Authority. Exit 1 of northbound I-295 leads directly to Overlook Avenue and the NRL Main Gate.

In addition, NRL operates several field sites and satellite facilities:[2][61]


Early history[edit]

Artifacts found on the NRL campus, such as stone tools and ceramic shards, show that the site had been inhabited since the Late Archaic Period. Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore granted the tract of land including the present NRL campus to William Middleton in 1663. It became part of the District of Columbia in 1791, and was purchased by Thomas Grafton Addison in 1795, who named the area Bellevue and built a mansion on the highlands to the east. Zachariah Berry purchased the land in 1827, who rented it out for various purposes including a fishery at Blue Plains. The mansion was demolished during the Civil War to build Fort Greble. In 1873 the land was purchased by the federal government as the Bellevue Annex to the Naval Gun Factory, and several buildings were constructed including the Commandant's house, "Quarters A", which is still in use today.[64]


NRL in 1923, the first year of its existence, showing the first five buildings on its campus

The Naval Research Laboratory came into existence from an idea that originated from Thomas Edison. In a May 1915 editorial piece in the New York Times Magazine, Edison wrote; "The Government should maintain a great research laboratory... In this could be developed...all the technique of military and naval progression without any vast expense."[65] This statement addressed concerns about World War I in the United States.[66]

Edison then agreed to serve as the head of the Naval Consulting Board that consisted of civilians who had achieved expertise. The focus of the Naval Consulting Board was as advisor to the U.S. Navy pertaining to science and technology. The board brought forward a plan to create a modern facility for the Navy. In 1916 Congress allocated $1.5 million for implementation. However, construction was delayed until 1920 because of the war and internal disagreements within the board.[66]

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the first modern research institution created within the United States Navy, began operations at 1100 on 2 July 1923. The Laboratory's two original divisions - Radio and Sound - performed research in the fields of high-frequency radio and underwater sound propagation.[66] They produced communications equipment, direction-finding devices, sonar sets, and perhaps most significant of all, the first practical radar equipment built in the United States. They performed basic research, participating, for example, in the discovery and early exploration of the ionosphere. Moreover, the NRL was able to work gradually toward its goal of becoming a broadly based research facility. By the beginning of World War II, five new divisions had been added: Physical Optics, Chemistry, Metallurgy, Mechanics and Electricity, and Internal Communications.[66]

World War II years and growth[edit]

NRL in 1944, after significant wartime growth

Total employment at the NRL jumped from 396 in 1941 to 4400 in 1946, expenditures from $1.7 million to $13.7 million, the number of buildings from 23 to 67, and the number of projects from 200 to about 900. During World War II, scientific activities necessarily were concentrated almost entirely on applied research. New electronics equipment - radio, radar, sonar - was developed. Countermeasures were devised. New lubricants were produced, as were antifouling paints, luminous identification tapes, and a sea marker to help save survivors of disasters at sea. A thermal diffusion process was conceived and used to supply some of the U-235 isotope needed for one of the first atomic bombs. Also, many new devices that developed from booming wartime industry were type tested and then certified as reliable for the Fleet.[66]

After WWII[edit]

NRL in 2001

As a result of the scientific accomplishments of the WWII, the United States emerged into the postwar era determined to consolidate its wartime gains in science and technology and to preserve the working relationship between its armed forces and the scientific community. While the Navy was establishing the Office of Naval Research (ONR) as a liaison with and supporter of basic and applied scientific research, the Navy encouraged NRL to broaden its scope since it was the Navy Department's corporate research laboratory. NRL was placed under the administrative oversight of ONR after ONR was created. NRL's Commanding Officer reports to the Navy's Chief of Naval Research (CNR). The Chief of Naval Research leads the Office of Naval Research, which primarily is located in the Ballston area of Arlington, Virginia. The reorganization also caused a parallel shift of the Laboratory's emphasis to one of long-range basic and applied research in the full range of the physical sciences.[2]

However, rapid expansion during the war had left NRL improperly structured to address long-term Navy requirements. One major task - neither easily nor rapidly accomplished - was that of reshaping and coordinating research. This was achieved by transforming a group of largely autonomous scientific divisions into a unified institution with a clear mission and a fully coordinated research program. The first attempt at reorganization vested power in an executive committee composed of all the division superintendents. This committee was impracticably large, so in 1949, a civilian director of research was named and given full authority over the program. Positions for associate directors were added in 1954.[2]

Modern Era[edit]

In 1992, the previously separate Naval Oceanographic and Atmospheric Research Laboratory (NOARL), with centers in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and Monterey, California, was merged into NRL. Since then, NRL is also the lead Navy center for research in Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences, with special strengths in physical oceanography, marine geosciences, ocean acoustics, marine meteorology, and remote oceanic and atmospheric sensing.[66]

See also[edit]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document "http://www.nrl.navy.mil".

  1. ^ "Mission". United States Naval Research Laboratory. Retrieved 9 December 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "NRL Fact Book" (PDF). U. S. Naval Research Laboratory. 2014. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "The Little Book of Big Achievements" (PDF). U. S. Naval Research Laboratory. 2000. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  4. ^ http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/v3/n3/full/nnano.2008.51.html
  5. ^ http://www.nrl.navy.mil/nanoscience/programs.php
  6. ^ "Naval Research Laboratory Nanoscience Institute". U. S. Naval Research Laboratory. 2012. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  7. ^ "LASR: behind the curtain of the Navy's robotics laboratory". Engadget. AOL. Retrieved 4 March 2016. 
  8. ^ http://www.gpsdeclassified.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/NRL_GPS_Bibliography-web.pdf
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External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°49′26″N 77°01′21″W / 38.82389°N 77.02250°W / 38.82389; -77.02250