Argonne scientists win four Early Career Research Awards

By Louise LernerMay 20, 2011

ARGONNE, Ill. — Four scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been selected to receive Early Career Research Awards from DOE.

The awards, each for $2.5 million over five years, fund individual research programs of outstanding scientists early in their careers. With four winners, Argonne was among the most-awarded institutions.

This year's Argonne winners include a proposal to craft more efficient and cheaper parts for accelerators; a proposal for better instruments to pick out rare particle collision events at the Large Hadron Collider; intensive study of the helium-6 isotope; and models of the atomic interfaces between solid electrodes and liquid electrolytes.

Thomas Prolier, an assistant physicist at Argonne, received an award from DOE's Office of High Energy Physics to apply a technique called atomic layer deposition to the manufacturing of superconducting cavities for accelerators. Accelerators are composed of a series of chambers, called superconducting cavities, which energize charged particles. Current cavities use niobium, which is both expensive and thought to be approaching its efficiency limits. Prolier hopes to use atomic layer deposition, a technique to precisely apply layers of atoms, to manufacture cavities that significantly reduce the cost of building and operating accelerators.

Peter Mueller, an Argonne assistant physicist, received funding from DOE's Office of Nuclear Physics to study the decay properties of the helium-6 isotope. The current theory of particle physics, called the Standard Model, has holes; for example, it doesn't explain phenomena such as dark matter. Direct experimental evidence of physics beyond the Standard Model will help to develop new theories to fill in these holes. By precisely measuring the decay of radioactive nuclei, such as helium-6, Mueller aims to test certain Standard Model predictions with unprecedented sensitivity—and possibly find telltale signs of new interactions.

Jeffrey Greeley, an assistant materials scientist, received his award from DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences to study solid-liquid interfaces. Materials science seeks to understand the fundamental properties of materials so we can build them to our liking; it is the gateway to new technology, from solar cells and biofuels to fuel cells and batteries. Many of these technologies depend in particular on the chemical and physical processes that occur at the boundaries between solid electrodes and liquid electrolytes. Greeley will develop quantum chemical computational models that explain behavior at these interfaces.

Jinlong Zhang is an assistant physicist whose grant, from DOE's Office of High Energy Physics, will fund the design and construction of instruments to measure particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. The LHC smashes protons together at the highest energies ever achieved—and with 20 million new sets of collisions every second, there are a lot of data to sift through. Detecting the rare events out of the trillions of collisions requires sophisticated software and hardware. Zhang will build a system that more efficiently captures rare events and reconstructs their tracks, improving the potential for new physics discoveries.

"The Early Career Research program provides crucial support to promising scientists whose ideas have the potential to advance American science by expanding our understanding of technology, processes, materials and ideas," said Argonne director Eric Isaacs. "We are proud to congratulate these four young researchers on their outstanding proposals, and I look forward to seeing the results of their work."

The awards are intended to stimulate research careers in the areas supported by the Department of Energy's Office of Science. To be eligible for an award, a researcher must be an untenured, tenure-track assistant professor at a U.S. academic institution or a full-time employee at a DOE national laboratory and have received a Ph.D. degree within the past 10 years.