Newswise — July 1 marks the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. Since its inception, Argonne has dramatically evolved from a nuclear facility devoted to the peaceful use of atomic power to a multipurpose laboratory whose scientific work seeks to solve critical physical, environmental, economic and social problems.
Looking back at some of the key figures in Argonne’s history offers a chance to reflect on some accomplishments that have transformed American science through discoveries in energy, climate, health, computing, cosmology and more, and improved our everyday lives.
Key figures in Argonne’s history transformed American science through discoveries in energy, climate, health, computing, cosmology and more.
Argonne’s story begins with Enrico Fermi, the lab’s first director before it was chartered and the architect of the nuclear age. Fermi pioneered the advance of nuclear energy and paved the way for accomplishments that would end World War II and enable 75 years of civilian peacetime nuclear energy.
Fermi won the Nobel Prize in 1938, for his work in radioactivity and for the discovery of elements beyond uranium that were later understood to be previously unknown fission products. That same year, he and his Jewish wife fled Italy — where he had been a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome — to escape Nazi persecution. In 1942, Fermi and a team helped build the first self-sustaining, human-created nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. This discovery resulted in the founding of Argonne four years later.
Fermi’s legacy of work in nuclear physics dramatically revolutionized society. Not only did it pave the way for the atomic bomb, but all nuclear reactors around the world owe their existence to Fermi’s research.
Work continues to this day in nuclear reactor design and development, but now much of it is done on computers. Scientists from several institutions, including Argonne, are working to build the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), which could allow for a plug-and-play operating model where different parts are tested experimentally. While the VTR will not produce electricity, the experiments conducted through it could help scientists develop ideas for future commercial nuclear reactors that could eventually power homes and businesses with clean, carbon-free energy.
Maria Goeppert Mayer
Like Enrico Fermi, Maria Goeppert Mayer was an immigrant, spending her youth in Germany. She worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University before coming to Argonne.
Mayer is most widely known for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, a theory that garnered her the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963. This model holds that the neutrons and protons inside a nucleus are ordered into spaced shells, much like the electrons outside of the nucleus. Mayer was the second woman to win the physics Nobel Prize, 60 years after Marie Curie, and the first Argonne employee to win the Nobel Prize based on work done at the laboratory.
Mayer’s discovery opened the door for a new kind of nuclear physics and revolutionized scientist’s understanding of the inner parts of atoms.
Today’s researchers, including those using the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, build upon Mayer’s pivotal discovery, refining their understanding of the structure of the nucleus, especially the quarks and gluons that compose the protons and neutrons. Also following Mayer’s legacy, Argonne awards the Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship internationally to outstanding doctoral scientists and engineers for a three-year program pursuing the fellows’ research interests.
Alexei Abrikosov’s theory for superconductors — materials that conduct electricity with no energy loss at extremely low temperatures — led to the development of a previously unknown, second type of superconductor.
Until Abrikosov’s discovery, scientists only understood one type of superconductor, which broke down when the magnetic field got too strong. Abrikosov’s type-II superconductors held higher currents and thus enabled stronger magnetic fields.
Born in Moscow, Abrikosov worked in the field of theoretical physics until 1991, when he joined Argonne as a distinguished scientist in material science until 2014. In 2003, he won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work with superconductors.
Abrikosov’s work on superconductivity has had profound implications for particle accelerators, fusion reactors, cell phone towers and wind turbine compact motors. The design of MRI machines is based on type-II superconductors. Today, Abrikosov's work continues to contribute to Argonne research on the properties of metal and superconductors.
Margaret Butler was one of America’s earliest computer scientists. Beginning her career as a government statistician, she quickly joined Argonne as a junior mathematician in 1947. In the early 1950s, Butler worked on the AVIDAC (Argonne Version of the Institute's Digital Automatic Computer), one of the nation’s first supercomputers. AVIDAC was used to solve mathematical problems for nuclear reactor engineering and theoretical physics research. As time went on and more supercomputers were developed, Butler expanded her portfolio to solve problems in biology, chemistry and physics.
In addition to her work in computer science, Butler was also a key proponent of women in science, becoming the first woman fellow of the American Nuclear Society. She organized the Association for Women in Science in Chicago and worked to hire and promote women during her time at Argonne.
Butler’s application of supercomputers to large-scale scientific questions proved that these tools could have a wide variety of uses for solving vital problems of national interest. She was able to show the use of computers across scientific fields, positioning computer science as a real tool for inquiry.
Butler’s supercomputing legacy lives on at Argonne today through the Margaret Butler Fellowship in Computational Science, awarded to postdoctoral candidates through the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. Her legacy also lives on at Argonne as the laboratory embarks on the exascale era with supercomputers more than a billion times faster than the AVIDAC. Computer science at Argonne touches every scientific discipline, from materials science to metagenomics, and in fields that help develop solutions for fighting climate change and COVID-19.
Leona Woods was the youngest scientist, and the only woman, to work on the Manhattan Project in Chicago. Working alongside Enrico Fermi and 47 other men, Woods created neutron detectors that were critical to confirming the occurrence of the sustained nuclear chain reaction that the team created.
Woods then worked with Fermi’s team on the Chicago Pile-2 and Chicago Pile-3 reactors at Argonne. In 1944, the Argonne team moved to the Hanford Site in Washington, where a large reactor was producing plutonium for bombs. When the reactor kept shutting down after its initial power-up, Woods helped determine the root of the problem: radioactive poison from the rare isotope xenon-135.
In a time when women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers was rare, Woods stood out as an exemplary scientist, playing a key role in creating the world’s first nuclear reactor. Throughout her lifetime, Woods published more than 200 scientific papers.
Later in her career, Woods worked in ecology and environmental science, devising methods of using isotope ratios for retroactively studying temperature and rainfall patterns from hundreds of years before records existed. Her foundational research opened the door to the study of climate change. Today, Argonne is a leader in research on understanding and mitigating climate change.
Walter Massey was Argonne’s sixth director and the first African American to hold the post. Born during the Jim Crow era in Mississippi in 1938, Massey had a determination and intelligence that earned him a scholarship to Morehouse College and later a postdoctoral research position at Argonne, among other faculty positions he held before becoming Argonne’s director.
Less than a month after Massey accepted the position as Argonne’s director, a nuclear generating station in Pennsylvania, called Three-Mile Island, experienced a partial meltdown. The incident caused a rise in conflicting politics over the importance of nuclear energy research, which was Argonne’s historical foundation. To give Argonne a more positive public image, Massey fostered relations with the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., and launched a new campaign for the fast breeder reactor to promote the significance of the work done at Argonne.
As part of the campaign, Massey oversaw the construction of the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source (later decommissioned), which brought researchers to Argonne and helped them make many scientific discoveries, such as identifying the structure and formation of Alzheimer’s plaques. Massey also laid the groundwork for what would become the Advanced Photon Source, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, now considered one of the world’s most productive X-ray light sources.
As Argonne’s director in the early 1980s, Massey pushed for the development of the fast breeder reactor, a pioneering new nuclear technology, and was a staunch advocate of renewable energy.
Today, his legacy lives on at Argonne, especially in the community and educational outreach programs that were initiated during his tenure. This year Argonne introduced the Walter Massey Fellowship for exceptional scientists of color to conduct research at Argonne.
Rudolph “Rudy” Bouie
Rudy Bouie began his career at Argonne as a janitor in 1963, rising in the ranks to become director of the Plant Facilities and Services (PFS) Division in 1982. He served as chief operations officer in his last year at Argonne, before his death in 2001.
A native Chicagoan, Bouie promoted the success of others and Argonne. He advocated for opportunities for women in STEM and provided employment opportunities for adults with disabilities. In addition, he helped create a high school education program that mentored students in STEM, leading several graduates to assume positions at Argonne.
When he became director of PFS, Bouie inherited a lab with buildings that were nearly 30 years old and in desperate need of upgrades. During that time, the funds for such projects were shrinking while the need grew for new buildings and renovations.
Bouie secured funds by networking in Washington, D.C., and outlining detailed plans extending years into the future. He raised funds to construct new buildings, renovate old ones and finally replace “temporary” buildings. Many of those new buildings are still important to Argonne today. In honor of all his contributions to the mission of Argonne, Bouie received the University of Chicago Outstanding Service Award in 1993.
In the mid-1960s, Roland Winston produced an important design for collecting solar radiation: a hollow, cone-like structure with reflective walls that concentrated sunlight. However, Winston, then an associate professor of physics at the University of Chicago, wasn’t focused on generating electricity. He wanted to use his “funnel for light,” as he later called it, to collect Cherenkov radiation, a type of light useful for detecting subatomic particles in nuclear and particle physics experiments.
Nearly a decade later, Winston’s work drew interest from Argonne Director Robert Sachs. Spurred by the oil crisis, Sachs and others were looking at ways to make solar energy cheaper and more efficient by avoiding the mechanical design complexities that resulted from the need to track the sun’s movement across the sky. Winston collaborated with Argonne scientists to apply his design for solar radiation collection to the first prototype of a solar collector, called a compound parabolic concentrator (CPC), which could efficiently focus sunlight throughout the day without moving.
With his CPC, Winston unwittingly helped start the field of nonimaging optics, which is essential not just for solar energy, but also for astronomy and illumination. Since collaborating with Argonne, Winston has gone on to win more than 10 awards for his work with solar energy.
Today, researchers continue to explore ways to make CPCs smaller, more efficient and more affordable. They are commonly used in fiber optics, solar energy collection and biomedical and defense research.
While working as a scientist at Argonne, Paul Benioff made a discovery that opened up an entirely new field of computing. Today, Argonne scientists are working on multiple efforts in quantum computing — using dual-state quantum bits, or qubits, to solve problems that current supercomputers cannot. But in the 1970s, quantum computers were still only an idea — one that many scientists considered impossible.
Benioff changed that. In a groundbreaking paper published in 1980, he demonstrated for the first time that a quantum computer was indeed theoretically possible. He developed his model further in subsequent papers. By proving that quantum computers were not an impossibility, as many had thought, Benioff catalyzed an entire field that is now focused on building quantum systems to relay information and perform dauntingly complex calculations.
Benioff joined Argonne in 1961, working in chemistry and environmental sciences. His quantum explorations weren’t part of the job — he did the research in his spare time. In 2001, he received the University of Chicago Medal for Distinguished Performance and, in 2016, Argonne held a symposium in honor of his quantum computing work, with Benioff attending as a speaker. He continued to publish research on quantum theory well into the last decade.
Christina Nunez also contributed to this story.
About the Advanced Photon Source
The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.
This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.