Located in Argonne, IL, Argonne National Laboratory (ARL) is a multidisciplinary science and engineering research center. Born out of the University of Chicago’s work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, Argonne is managed today by UChicago Argonne LLC for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The shape of fuel injection systems, such as this piece from the NASA rocket Morpheus, impacts how the fuel components mix and burn, affecting efficiency, carbon dioxide production, stability, and wear and tear on the engine. The Advanced Photon Source at Argonne has the world’s only X-ray beamline dedicated to fuel injection research, and is the only place where engine systems can be tested in real time in real operating conditions. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Argonne traces its birth from the Manhattan Project to create the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. On July 1, 1946, the laboratory was formally chartered as Argonne National Laboratory to conduct “cooperative research in nucleonics.” At the request of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, it began developing nuclear reactors for the nation’s nuclear energy program. Knowledge gained from the Argonne experiments formed the foundation for the designs of most of the commercial reactors currently used throughout the world for electric power generation, and continue to inform designs of liquid-metal reactors for future commercial power stations.

Innovations at Argonne

Not all nuclear technology went into developing reactors. Innovations in many areas of technology have been discovered at Argonne.

  • While designing a scanner for reactor fuel elements in 1957, Argonne physicist William Nelson Beck put his own arm inside the scanner and obtained one of the first ultrasound images of the human body.

  • Remote manipulators designed to handle radioactive materials laid the groundwork for more complex machines used to clean up contaminated areas, sealed laboratories, or caves.

  • Scientists at Argonne pioneered a technique to analyze the Moon’s surface using alpha radiation that launched aboard the Surveyor 5 in 1967, and later analyzed lunar samples from the Apollo 11 mission.

  • The batteries in the Chevy Volt use a revolutionary new cathode material invented at Argonne that makes them last longer and store more energy.

  • Multiple lifesaving drugs have been developed with the help of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, including Votrient, which treats advanced kidney cancer and soft-tissue sarcomas, and Venclexta, which treats leukemia.

  • Argonne scientists used a nano technique to invent a new sponge material that can adsorb 90 times its own weight in oil from water — and can be reused hundreds of times.

  • The reactor core for the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first atomic-powered submarine that can cross beneath the Arctic polar cap without coming up for air, was developed.

  • Argonne created the world’s thinnest, most flexible, transparent thin-film transistor — taking us a step closer to truly flexible display screens for televisions, computers, or phones.

  • A new diamond-like coating was created that rebuilds itself as soon as it begins to break down, so engine parts — and pretty much anything that is subjected to wear and tear — will be more durable.

  • The ultrananocrystalline diamond — the world’s smoothest, hardest diamond film — was developed, resulting in new industrial coatings that prevent wear. It’s also a key component in an FDA-approved artificial retina that restores useful vision to people blinded by retinal disease.

  • Argonne’s PROTECT early-warning system is installed in subway systems in Boston, New York, and Washington, DC to detect chemical and biological attacks from terrorists, and speed up evacuation and emergency response.

  • Scientists using the Advanced Photon Source revealed the first 3D structure of a protein believed to be vital to how the Zika virus spreads, which could help guide the design of a potential vaccine or treatment.

  • A team of Argonne researchers is developing a nanofoam that can block heat and sound from passing through a window. This experimental glass coating uses tiny gas bubbles to block these environmental irritants while allowing visible light to shine through, which could save the country millions of dollars a year in energy costs.

  • Tribologists discovered that graphene, a one-atom-thick form of carbon, dramatically reduces friction on sliding steel surfaces. This research promises to reduce wear and tear in machines from table fans to giant wind turbines.

  • Scientists used X-rays to study abilities like ultra-strong spider silk and super-fast beetle sprays, which could be tapped for multiple uses.

Directorates

Argonne conducts fundamental research to understand, predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at the electronic, atomic, and molecular levels. Argonne’s research and development programs are organized into four directorates.

A 20-liter jacked reactor is prepared for large-scale preparation of electrolyte materials for lithium-ion batteries. Reactors and other instruments in Argonne’s Materials Engineering Research Facility produce large quantities of materials for industrial validation. (Argonne National Laboratory)

The Computing, Environment & Life Sciences (CELS) directorate’s mission is to enable groundbreaking scientific and technical accomplishments in areas of critical importance in the 21st century. CELS integrates research in the life sciences with the environmental sciences and the computing sciences.

The Energy & Global Security (EGS) directorate applies unique expertise in science, engineering, and information systems to deliver environmentally sound solutions to challenges in energy access and global security.

Photon Sciences (PS) comprises three research and support divisions centered on the Advanced Photon Source (APS), which provides the brightest storage ring-generated x-ray beams in the western hemisphere to more than 5,000 scientists worldwide.

The mission of the Physical Sciences & Engineering (PSE) directorate is to create new materials and chemistries, and advance accelerator physics. It operates and manages two user facilities for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science — the Center for Nanoscale Materials and the Electron Microscopy Center.

Research Areas

The Project Green Camaro is being readied for track testing. Green Racing uses motor sport competitions as a platform to help rapidly introduce technologies to consumers that improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gases while increasing performance. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Batteries & Energy Storage. Researchers are developing advanced energy storage technologies to aid the growth of the US battery manufacturing industry, transition the US automotive fleet to plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, and enable greater use of renewable energy. Argonne develops more robust, safer, and higher-energy-density lithium-ion batteries, while developing storage materials that dramatically increase storage capacity and power densities.

Energy Systems Modeling. Proposed transformations to the nation’s energy system will introduce new technologies into the market, cause widespread changes in energy consumption patterns, and even physical changes to the power grid. Argonne uses systems analysis tools and advanced computing capabilities to investigate energy systems as a whole, instead of component parts.

Materials for Energy. In the search for alternative energy sources, catalysts are needed to convert feedstocks into fuels, and new architectures are sought for better solar cells and materials for advanced energy storage, including lithium batteries. Argonne is making advances in the science of materials discovery and synthesis.

When treating cardiac arrest victims, brain cells start to die in minutes without the ability to obtain fresh oxygen from blood pumped through the body. Argonne developed a new technique using medical ice slurry that can reduce the organs’ demand for oxygen, giving doctors extra time to diagnose and treat critical patients. The portable, fully automated medical slurry production and delivery system gives surgeons the ability to selectively cool a specific organ to a protective temperature, increasing the survival rate of patients, and reducing brain damage. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Nuclear Energy. Nuclear energy is the largest generator of carbon-free electricity in use today, and it will play an increasing role in worldwide power generation. Nearly every commercial reactor in operation today was developed from Argonne research. Researchers are developing advanced reactors and fuel-cycle technologies that promise to improve the affordability of nuclear power, enhance the assurance of safety and security, and minimize the discharge of radioactive waste.

Renewable Energy. Argonne is using its expertise to explore the development, use, and consequences of non-fossil energies. Renewable energy research helps create technologies that will quickly put new options within the nation’s reach. Argonne’s work includes research in bio-fuels, as well as hydropower, solar energy, wind power, geothermal power, and their integration into electric power grids.

Tech Briefs Magazine

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

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