Ames Laboratory is a government-owned, contractor-operated national laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), operated by and located on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, IA. For more than 70 years, Ames Laboratory has successfully partnered with Iowa State University and is unique among the DOE laboratories in that it is physically located on the campus of a major research university.

Researcher Yibole Hargen prepares a caloric material sample for evaluation as part of CaloriCool™, an early-stage research consortium led by Ames Laboratory that is searching for a metallic compound that has the potential to radically change refrigeration technology as it currently exists.

The lab was formally established in 1947 by the Atomic Energy Commission as a result of the Ames Project's successful development of the most efficient process to produce high-purity uranium metal in large quantities for atomic energy.

After the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939, the U.S. government decided that the development of atomic energy warranted a consolidated national effort and asked leading scientists to join in the endeavor. In 1942, Iowa State College set up and directed a chemical research and development program to accompany the Manhattan Project's existing physics program.

Nobel Physicist Enrico Fermi was sure that a self-sustaining chain reaction could be triggered by bombarding the uranium nucleus with thermal neutrons. For the chain reaction to be successful, tons of uranium metal needed to be produced with a purity far beyond what was commercially available.

Several industries and university laboratories started investigating better methods for producing uranium metal. The Ames group soon developed a process for producing pure uranium, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal at dramatically reduced costs.

The first successful self-sustaining chain reaction initiating the controlled release of nuclear energy occurred December 2, 1942 at the University of Chicago. The Ames Project furnished one-third of the uranium metal used in the successful demonstration of the first chain-reacting pile.

After proving that a chain reaction could be self-sustained and controlled, the need for pure uranium greatly increased. The Ames Project produced as much metal as possible until industry took over the process in 1945. The Ames Project developed new methods for both melting and casting uranium metal, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal and reduce production costs by as much as 20-fold. This uranium production process is still used today. Ames produced more than 2 million pounds (1,000 tons) of uranium for the Manhattan Project, advancing wartime efforts to uncover the secrets of atomic power and protect national security.

Areas of Expertise

Ames Lab has broadened its scope beyond materials research over the years. Examples of specific projects include world-class fundamental photosynthesis studies to help in the design of synthetic molecules for direct solar energy conversion, and development of a remote-controlled analysis system that will acquire and analyze samples from hazardous waste sites at greatly reduced risk and cost.

Other projects include harnessing the power of the most advanced computing systems available for scientists unlocking the secrets of revolutionary new materials like superconductors, fullerenes, and quasicrystals; and the synthesis and study of nontraditional materials such as organic polymers and organometallic materials to serve as novel semiconductors, processable pre-ceramics, and nonlinear optical systems.

Key areas of expertise are materials design, synthesis, and processing; analytical instrumentation design and development; materials characterization; catalysis; computational chemistry; condensed matter theory; and computational materials science and materials theory.

Divisions and Programs

Ames seeks solutions to energy-related problems of national concern through four divisions:

Division of Chemical and Biological Sciences – This division develops and applies theoretical, computational, and experimental methods to the study of surface reaction phenomena, cluster science and nucleation, biological processes, and catalysis. Research has led to improved processes for biodiesel production. CBS also develops new techniques to obtain an unprecedented look at living cells. Enhanced chemical imaging with high spatial and temporal resolution is another key area of development.

A self-destructive working lithium-ion battery is capable of delivering 2.5 Volts and dissolves or dissipates in 30 minutes when dropped in water. The battery can power a desktop calculator for about 15 minutes. Self-destructing electronic devices could keep military secrets out of enemy hands or save patients the pain of removing a medical device.

CBS capabilities include advanced characterization methods including neutron and x-ray scattering, angle-resolved photo-emission, solid-state NMR, ultra-sensitive chemical and structural analysis, and ultra-precise frequency measurements. The division also designs and synthesizes materials for energy-related applications including energy-efficient conversion, generation, transmission, and storage.

Critical Materials Institute – The Critical Materials Institute brings together leading researchers from other DOE national laboratories, academia, and industry to develop solutions to domestic shortages of rare earth materials and other materials critical to U.S. energy security. CMI researchers have disclosed more than 90 inventions, filed more than 50 patent applications, have been awarded six patents, and licensed five technologies.

CMI focuses on technologies that make better use of materials and eliminate the need for materials that are subject to supply disruptions. These critical materials are essential for American competitiveness in clean energy. Many materials deemed critical by the U.S. Department of Energy are used in modern clean energy technologies, including wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting. Actual or threatened shortages of essential raw materials create risks for U.S. manufacturing and energy security.

Researchers at the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) invented a magnet recycling process in which magnets are dissolved in water-based solutions, recovering more than 99%-purity rare earth elements. The materials recovered have been reused to make new magnets, and recovered cobalt shows promise for use in making battery cathodes.

Rare earth elements emerged as critical materials in 2010, with their essential roles in high-efficiency motors, generators, and advanced lighting; lack of supply diversity; and growing demand. Rare earth metals and alloys are not produced in the United States despite the availability of geologic resources because the processes required to separate individual rare earths from one another and then convert them to metals and alloys are inefficient, costly, polluting, and potentially damaging to worker health and safety. Beginning this year, CMI focus expanded beyond rare earths to include cobalt, gallium, indium, lithium, manganese, platinum group metals, tellurium, vanadium, and battery-quality graphite.

Simulation, Modeling and Decision Science – Computational tools, algorithms, and strategies are developed to analyze, understand, create, design, and build complex engineered, natural, or human systems. This complex systems-based approach is critical to addressing issues of energy system design, environmental impact, and sustainability.

Materials Preparation Center – The MPC is a specialized research center recognized for its unique capabilities in the preparation, purification, single crystal growth, and characterization of rare earth metals, alkaline earth metals, and refractory metal materials.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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