Argonne National Laboratory

Discoveries
For more than 70 years, the men and women of Argonne have carried out basic and applied science and engineering aimed at solving the nation's pressing scientific and technological challenges.

Pioneered modern nuclear power. Argonne conceived, developed, built, and tested the concepts and prototypes for most commercial nuclear reactors operating in the world today.

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

Fought cancer with knowledge from powerful X-rays. Multiple life-saving 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.

Invented a magic sponge to clean up oil spills. 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.

Helped sniff out the Higgs boson. A team led by Argonne physicists played a key role in the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.

Co-discovered two elements. Argonne scientists co-discovered einsteinium and fermium, elements 99 and 100 in the periodic table.

Powered nuclear submarines. Argonne developed the reactor core for the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world's first atomic-powered submarine, which can cross beneath the Arctic polar cap without coming up for air.

Solved thousands of protein structures. The Structural Biology Center at Argonne leads the world in solving the structures of proteins, used by researchers around the world to develop new drugs and diagnostic procedures.

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

Invented a diamond coating for engine parts that heals itself. Argonne scientists have created a new diamond-like coating 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.

Provided X-rays that led to multiple Nobel Prizes. X-rays from the Advanced Photon Source enabled the research that earned the 2009 and 2012 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry.

Helped scientists model the world. At Argonne, home to one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, scientists write code and develop software for models that simulate everything from how stars explode to how blood cells travel inside the brain and how air flows over airplane wings.

Found a way to count atoms to find the age of glaciers. Argonne physicists developed an ultra-sensitive method for detecting the presence of elements at levels as low as a few parts per trillion. This innovation has been used to measure the age of glaciers and to find out how fast aquifers refill.

Invented the world’s smoothest diamond film. An Argonne scientist invented the ultrananocrystalline diamond, the world’s smoothest, hardest diamond film, 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.

Protected public places from attack. Argonne's PROTECT early-warning system is installed in subway systems in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. to detect chemical and biological attacks from terrorists and speed up evacuation and emergency response. 

Ran 10,000 engine simulations at once. Thanks to computer scientists at Argonne, engineers can now run 10,000 simultaneous simulations of engine designs in a virtual environment—greatly reducing the cost of developing newer, more efficient engines.

Invented a way to watch liquid jets at high speed. Argonne researchers developed a new technique that uses X-rays to peer through high-speed liquid jets. This gives engineers the insight needed to improve the performance of fuel injectors for cars and trucks.

Combined gas and diesel engines for the best of both worlds. Argonne researchers are pursuing a long-sought breakthrough in engine design – the gasoline compression engine. The concept combines the best characteristics of gasoline and diesel engines and could yield a 50% efficiency increase while decreasing pollutants.

Tracked radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi accident. After the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Argonne’s Radiological Assistance Program team went to Japan to take hundreds of readings and soil samples to measure and map the dispersal of radiation, which informed steps taken to contain the disaster.

Partnered with Exelon to keep the American grid running reliably and efficiently. Exelon Corp., one of the nation’s largest utilities, recently announced a five-year partnership with Argonne to pursue clean energy research. The partnership will focus on projects that will help modernize the energy grid and ensure reliable electricity generation for millions of customers. 

Made concrete improvements. Simulations and X-rays are helping scientists understand the hidden physics of concrete and cement so they can build stronger, cleaner materials.

Made the first compound with a noble gas. In 1962, Argonne announced the creation of xenon tetrafluoride, the first simple compound of xenon, a noble gas widely thought to be chemically inert. The creation opened a new era for the study of chemical bonds.

Developed better ways to etch tiny structures. Argonne scientists invented SIS lithography, a new way to create nanoscale patterns for microelectronics at lower cost and better performance.

Improved the next generation of plane engines. Several of Argonne’s user facilities are helping engineers make next-generation plane engines safer, quieter, and more efficient.

Rapidly studied the emerging Zika threat. Scientists using the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne 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.

Making a nanofoam that can block heat from windows. A team of Argonne researchers is developing a nanofoam that can block heat and sound from passing through your 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 a year in energy costs.

Unlocking the secrets of T. rex’s arm. Scientists from the Field Museum in Chicago brought bones from the massive T. rex SUE to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne to perform the most detailed scan of SUE’s skeleton ever taken, allowing them to see fossilized blood vessels and cells deep inside her arm, without damaging it at all.

Made nuclear fuel processing safer. Argonne scientists developed a simpler, safer method to reprocess used nuclear fuel. Stealing a mollusk’s secret to a tough shell. The Advanced Photon Source at Argonne revealed how a Placuna mollusk’s shell is tougher than glass or high-performance plastics: it uses tiny defects that keep damage from spreading, a secret that researchers are planning to steal to make transparent, super-tough ceramics for cars, armor, electronics, and other uses.

Better gels for fracking. Insight from studies at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne could lead to better gels that won’t collapse in deep wells, leading to more efficient and effective hydraulic fracking techniques.

Explained nuclear structure. Argonne physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics for explaining the shell structure of the atomic nucleus.

Better inhalers for asthma. As an inhaler sprays its lifesaving dose, the medicine is not always distributed evenly—but the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne gave researchers snapshots of how the spray looks at a molecular level, which can help them design better ways to deliver the medicine.

Helped found quantum computing. In the early 1980s, an Argonne researcher laid the theoretical foundation for quantum computing by developing the first model of a Turing machine based on quantum mechanics. Quantum computers may be able to certain computing problems far faster than today’s computers.

Explained superconductivity. Argonne physicist Alexei Abrikosov shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in physics for contributions to the theory of superconductors—materials that today make possible MRI machines and cell phone towers.

Invented a tool to analyze emissions from cradle to grave. Argonne's GREET model is the world standard for evaluating how much energy different cars and fuels use and the emissions they produce over the lifetime of the vehicle, from mining raw materials through vehicle disposal.

Discovered an electron that likes water. An Argonne scientist in 1962 co-discovered the hydrated electron, a type of electron that is highly attracted to water. Considered a breakthrough, the discovery clarified many previously misunderstood concepts in radiation chemistry.

Made ball bearings more efficient. Argonne 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 all the way up to giant wind turbines.

Invented a way to get medical isotopes without a reactor. Argonne developed a new chemical process to help produce Tc-99m—the world's most used medical isotope for diagnostic imaging—without a nuclear reactor.

Fingerprinted materials at the atomic level. Argonne developed a technique to pair X-ray analysis with extremely precise microscopy to simultaneously look at the physical structure and chemical makeup of materials at close to the atomic level. This helps scientists discover next-generation materials for solar panels and other energy technology.

Watched nanomaterials grow and change in real time. Researchers at Argonne were the first to observe nanoparticles growing in real time and to watch them assemble themselves into chains. This work helps create new devices for medicine, energy, electronics, and many other fields.

Discovered the moon's volcanic history. An instrument developed by Argonne, the University of Chicago, and the Jet Propulsion Lab was carried to the moon in 1967 by Surveyor V. It tested the moon's surface with alpha particles and provided evidence that part of the moon's surface had been volcanic.

Taught electrons to surf. Argonne physicists were pioneers in wakefield acceleration, which accelerates electrons by letting them "surf" on the wake of a leading high-current electron beam. Argonne demonstrated an accelerating gradient five times higher than that of traditional linear accelerators.

Co-discovered superinsulation. Superinsulation, the ability of some materials to completely block the flow of electricity at low temperatures, was discovered by a team that included Argonne scientists.

Made nuclear reactors safer. Argonne experiments helped develop models used today by industry and regulators around the world to understand and prevent severe nuclear accidents. 

Used bacteria to clean up chemicals. Argonne demonstrated a way to encourage naturally occurring bacteria to clean soil contaminated with toxic carbon tetrachloride.

Learned engineering tricks from insects. Scientists used X-rays at Argonne to study abilities like ultra-strong spider silk and super-fast beetle sprays, which we could tap for our own uses.