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Argonne National Laboratory

75 Years of Discovery

A timeline of Argonne’s major research milestones

75 years and counting. Explore our timeline and learn how Argonne’s discoveries have changed your life and paved the way to future breakthroughs.
 
Letter of commencement of operations - Argonne National Laboratory by U of C. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

On July 1, 1946, the University of Chicago opened the doors to Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne, originally chartered to study peaceful uses of atomic power, has broadly expanded its focus over the last 75 years, driving discoveries in energy, climate, health, computing, cosmology, and more.

 

In 1949, Argonne physicists needed computers to solve enormously complex mathematical problems. Because these kinds of computers were not yet available commercially, they built their own — thus beginning the Argonne tradition of innovation in providing advanced computing resources to the scientific community.

 
String of four lightbulbs lit up. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory,)

In December 1951, Argonne's Experimental Breeder Reactor-I lit up a string of four lightbulbs with the world's first usable electricity from nuclear energy, enabling Argonne to deliver on the promise of peaceful uses for atomic energy. One of the bulbs was presented to Harry Truman, then President of the United States. 

 
Seated woman working computer controls. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne helped pioneer early computing research in 1953 when physicists built AVIDAC, the lab’s first digital computer. It was the size of a large room, contained 2,500 electronic tubes, and could perform arithmetic operations for numbers up to 999,999,999,999.

 
Submarine traveling on water. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

The launch of the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world's first atomic-powered submarine, was the culmination of six years of planning, design, execution and testing by organizations throughout the country, including Argonne National Laboratory. The capabilities of the Nautilus instantly transformed worldwide submarine and anti‑submarine tactics.

 

In 1960, an Argonne scientist helped create the science of molecular dynamics, using an early PC to calculate the reactions of simple molecules. Today, molecular dynamics is widely used to model existing materials and to find new materials with potentially useful properties.

 
Maria Goeppert-Mayer biographical plaque with headshot line drawing. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics for explaining the nuclear shell structure, which accounts for many properties of atomic nuclei.

 
Two men stand in front of silver-domed instrument. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 1963, Argonne’s Zero Gradient Synchrotron came online, the nation’s first proton accelerator for high-energy physics research and its first national user facility. After the addition of a hydrogen bubble chamber in 1970, Argonne scientists used it to study a key particle in the Standard Model of physics called the neutrino.

 
Neutron radiography. (Image by Fouad A. Saad/Shutterstock.)

Argonne and Zenith Radio develop a new neutron radiography technique that can resolve moving objects. Seeing through lead walls is no longer a problem.

 
Launching the  lithium-ion battery revolution. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In the 1970s, Argonne was part of the first wave of research
developing a lithium-based battery. The batteries operated at high temperature and had a very high capacity for storing energy. Intended applications included smogless-propulsion commercial vehicles and modernization of the electric grid. In the 1990s, Argonne redirected its program to focus on the lithium-ion battery, which operates at room temperature and above, paving the way for greater use of electric vehicles.

 

Thomas Janson and Joseph J. Katz develop a synthetic leaf, a combination of glass, metal and chemicals that converts light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis.

 
Purple honey-combed circle on panel. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne nuclear engineers have worked to convert numerous scientific reactors around the world to run on low rather than high-enriched uranium, which helps reduce the risk of the spread of nuclear weapons and material. 

 
Argonne’s entanglement with pioneering quantum computing. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In the early 1980s, Paul Benioff, now an Argonne emeritus scientist, proposed his pioneering theoretical framework for a quantum computer by developing the first model of a Turing machine based on quantum mechanics, which has ultimately led to Argonne’s pioneering research of quantum technologies today.

 
Man standing in front of mainframes, man seated in front of computer. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 1983, DOE’s Office of Advanced Scientific Computing led the nation in recognizing the potential of parallel computers by establishing the Advanced Computing Research Facility at Argonne.

 
The sky’s the limit: Argonne’s ATLAS supports research possibilities in nuclear and atomic physics. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

On April 25, 1985, Argonne's ATLAS successfully accelerated its first ion beam and became the world’s first superconducting accelerator for particles heavier than electrons. Open today to scientists from all over the world, ATLAS has provided unique and powerful beams for nuclear and atomic physics research programs for decades.

 
Red donut shape, silver middle; smoke rising from a silver, icy rectangle. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 1986 the discovery of high-temperature superconductors made a splash in science—and Argonne became a world leader in research on these materials, which carry electricity with no energy loss. In 1987, Argonne helped solve the structure of this material, made America's first wire out of it, and was first to run electrical current through the wire.

 
An Argonne cathode in a global brand's car models. (Image by General Motors,)

In the 1990s, Argonne invented a revolutionary cathode material from a nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) mix that lasted longer and stored more energy. Since inventing the NMC cathode, Argonne continued its development, leading to several licensing agreements, including with General Motors, which adopted the material in its Chevy Volt (now retired) and Bolt models.

 
Building a bright future. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

The Advanced Photon Source (APS) saw first light in 1995 and began research experiments in 1996. The APS generates ultrabright X-rays that enable a host of scientific pursuits. It is one of the most productive light sources in the world, used by more than 5,000 research groups from around the world annually. 

 

The I-WAY—a pioneering computer network—debuted at the Supercomputing ’95 conference. Built by Argonne computer scientists and networking engineers, the high-speed network linked 30 supercomputers across the nation into a powerful new computing resource for collaborative scientific research. The I-WAY integrated existing high-bandwidth networks with telephone systems.

 
Converting corn for use in consumer products. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 1996, researchers from Argonne and three other national laboratories developed a process to convert corn into a cost-efficient source of commercial chemicals. Once incorporated into polymers and solvents, these chemicals could be used in clothing, fibers, paints, inks, food additives, and other products, reducing imported oil use and expanding agriculture markets. 

 
Green, spiky, horned sphere amidst red, indented discs.

Research at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source in 1996 helped Abbott Laboratories develop Kaletra. Approved by the FDA in 2000, Kaletra has become a world-leading drug in the fight against the HIV virus, extending the lives of thousands living with HIV/AIDS. 

 
Graphic diagram greenhouse gases, regulated emissions, energy use in technologies. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Launched in 1996, 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.  

 

In 1998, Argonne scientists simplified an approach to removing metals and radionuclides from waste streams—with potential to lead to significant financial and environmental benefits for industrial separations processes. In the patented approach, small magnetic particles with a chemical coating act as a solvent and extractant to attract specific metals.

 
Metal cylinder, large and small metal circles. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 2002, Argonne engineers invented ultrananocrystalline diamond (UNCD), the world's smoothest and hardest diamond film made of a diamond-grain film only 5 nanometers across. UNCDs are chemically inert, so they are safe for use in implants (e.g., heart pump walls, artificial retinas), as well as in mechanical pump seals and sensors for detecting chemicals in water.

 
Man leaning arm on monitor with image of webbed perpendicular horizontal and vertical lines. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Alexei Abrikosov, who worked at Argonne from 1991 to 2014, shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work on superconductivity. His work has had profound implications for a range of technologies, including particle accelerators, fusion reactors, cell phone towers, and wind turbine compact motors. MRI machines are designed based on type-II superconductors, which were first theorized by Abrikosov.

 

In 2006, the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) was established as a DOE Office of Science User Facility dedicated to providing world-class supercomputing resources for open scientific research. Available to researchers from academia, industry and government agencies, ALCF supercomputers support large-scale, computationally intensive projects aimed at solving some of the world's most complex and challenging problems in science and engineering. 

 
Man using an instrument to apply a thin rectangle to colorful layers in metal disc. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 2007, Argonne researchers worked to perfect atomic layer deposition (ALD), a thin-film growth technique offering atomic-level control for coating complex, three-dimensional objects with precisely fitted layers. Target applications included using ALD to produce more efficient and less costly solar cells, solid-state lighting, industrial catalysts, superconductors, and separation membranes.

 
CNM History

Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials began full operations in September 2007. Users of this center have been leveraging its world-class tools and capabilities for nanoscale research to drive discoveries in energy and the environment, health, computing, quantum technology, and more.

 
Two men stand between four computer screens displaying graphic renditions. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, computer simulations called agent-based models, developed at Argonne, showed promise in predicting future market behavior. Such models provided policymakers with a more realistic picture of different types of investors and markets, enabling them to predict crises and better avert future economic catastrophe. 

 
APS part of formula for Nobel Prize win in chemistry

The three recipients of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry used the Advanced Photon Source to complete their award-winning research. 

 
Cracked the MRSA “code.” (Image by Kateryna Kon / Shutterstock.)

Argonne scientists launched a five-year study in 2009 to model outbreaks of MRSA, the deadly so-called “flesh-eating bacterium.” Using Argonne’s high-performance computers, they employed agent-based modeling, performing thousands of simulations to track and predict MRSA’s spread through a city.

 
Cross-section of purple spheres with silvery linings, embedded inside blue box-like shape. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 2009, researchers at Procter & Gamble used Argonne’s Intrepid Blue Gene/P supercomputer to perform unprecedented simulations investigating the molecular mechanisms of bubble formation in foams. Understanding these processes helps manufacturers develop many consumer products, foods, and fire-control materials.

 
Nonspherical holes on grey, in 3D. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 2010, Argonne developed its patented sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS) technique, which applies a vapor coating that diffuses into materials and grows inorganic yet functional structures rather than simply resting on the surface. SIS applies to semiconductors, coatings, glass, and sponges.

 
See-through image of car with battery and charge circuit lit up. (Image by General Motors.)

APS X-rays were crucial for designing the Chevy Volt’s improved battery cathode by enabling scientists to see—for the first time at the atomic level—the molecular structure of battery material.

 
Technician pours liquid from large beaker, into metal bowl. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 2012, Argonne opened the doors to the Materials Engineering Research Facility, where scientists and engineers are developing scalable manufacturing processes for advanced materials that are challenging to make. Working with dozens of partners from industry and academia, researchers produce kilogram quantities of experimental materials — for batteries, water purification, and more — and distribute them for industrial evaluation, prototyping and further R&D in new areas. A 2020 expansion more than doubled the MERF space.

 
Man and woman work with machinery. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) launched in 2012 with ambitious goals: to design and build transformative materials to enable next-generation batteries that satisfy all the performance metrics for a given application. Led by Argonne, the JCESR team consists of 150 researchers across 18 institutions. 

 
Man uses tool to hold object to lab machinery; bright light. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

For the first time, researchers using the Advanced Photon Source captured the exact moment when protein receptors carried out their biological mission, and won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work.

 

Starting in 2013, Argonne partnered with five other national laboratories to advance our understanding of dark matter and dark energy. The three-year “Computation-Driven Discovery for the Dark Universe” project focused on establishing computation-based discovery capabilities, with breakthroughs in algorithms and simulation tools, helping us exploit our high-performance computing resources.

 

Since releasing POLARIS in 2013, Argonne researchers have been refining the high-performance, open-source agent-based modeling framework designed to simulate large-scale transportation systems. POLARIS models the impacts of a multitude of factors — departure time, destination choice, planning and rescheduling, and route choices — on transportation systems and now also evaluates outcomes from improvements such as management and operations policies, new mobility options, and new technologies.

 
Blue graphic combustion engine simulation. (Image by Department of Energy.)

First released in 2014, Argonne's Virtual Engine Research Institute and Fuels Initiative (VERIFI) continues to be the world's leading source for high-fidelity, three dimensional, end-to-end combustion engine simulation/visualization and simultaneous powertrain and fuel simulation. VERIFI enables industry to reduce engine development timescales and costs and bring new innovations to market sooner.

 
Woman holding metal arm, looking through window showing lab instruments. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Since first demonstrating the production, separation and purification of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) in 2015, Argonne has gone on to support multiple potential domestic producers in developing techniques to produce Mo-99, the “parent” of technetium-99m, the most widely used radioisotope in medical diagnostic imaging. Used in more than 40 million medical diagnostic procedures each year, including heart stress tests and bone scans, technetium-99m was once available only via overseas producers of Mo-99. 

 
Six graduated simulations, golden strands, increasing clumps of dark matter. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 2015, Argonne led a major cosmological simulation that covered 13.8 billion years, modeling the evolution of the universe from 50 million years after the Big Bang to the present day. Run on the Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the simulation generated 2.5 petabytes of data that would take several years to analyze.

 

Argonne has patented a process for producing copper-67 (Cu-67), a promising “theranostic” medical isotope suitable for both targeted cancer therapy and diagnostic imaging. Through the DOE Isotope Program, Argonne produces and distributes batches of Cu-67 in sufficient quantity and purity to fill the current needs for radiopharmaceutical development and testing.

 
Map visualization of red, yellow, blue, green areas. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Using the power of Argonne’s supercomputers, scientists at the Risk and Infrastructure Science Center turned to climate modeling, combining climate data and analysis with infrastructure planning and decision support. The 2017 initiative provided utilities and other customers with extremely localized climate models, enabling them to plan and adjust their infrastructure investments.

 
Stopping Ebola in Its tracks. (Image by jaddingt / Shutterstock.)

Harnessing the power of Argonne’s Mira supercomputer, a team of scientists joined the DOE’s Ebola Task Force to study and halt the international Ebola health crisis. Using simulations in agent-based modeling in 2017, scientists assessed how entire populations might be affected if Ebola were to break out in the United States.

 
Giant white telescopic disc with blue sky and ice on horizon. (Image by Bradford A. Benson.)

The South Pole Telescope, designed to make images of the oldest light in the universe, opened its third-generation camera in 2018 for a multi-year survey to observe the universe’s earliest moments. This camera contains 16,000 detectors manufactured in Argonne’s ultra-clean rooms—ten times as many detectors as used in the second-generation experiment.

 
Mound of dirt with torn-looking Puerto Rican flag painted over tree roots, fallen tree, (Image by Octavio13 / Shutterstock.)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, a team of Argonne researchers supported FEMA with long-term recovery planning and near-term investment prioritization for Puerto Rico’s critical infrastructure systems. Their goal: to make Puerto Rico’s energy, water, communications, and transportation infrastructure more resilient and efficient in the future.

 
Burst of blue light strands. (Image by Shutterstock / asharkyu.)

In 2018, funding was approved enabling Argonne, a member of the “Quantum Triangle” with Fermilab and the University of Chicago, to pursue four quantum information science (QIS) projects. The multidisciplinary nature of QIS can potentially pave the way for new computing and sensing technologies.

 
Electric vehicle (EV) charging station. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In a twist much in line with Argonne's evolving story of energy science and technology, what had for decades been Argonne's campus gas station became in 2018 a green transportation and energy hub. Researchers use what is now the Smart Energy Plaza to research integrating electric vehicle (EV) charging with the electric grid, reducing the cost of EV charging infrastructure, making fast/consumer-friendly charging viable, and harmonizing global connectivity standards.

 
“Hazard-proofing” the electric grid. (Image by bread demin / Shutterstock.)

Argonne scientists leveraged their collective expertise in 2019 to make the nation’s electric grid—perhaps the largest and most complex machine ever assembled—more resilient against natural disasters and terrorism. Real-time resiliency and restoration tools help utilities, governments, and other stakeholders predict the impact of disruption on operations and interdependent systems.

 
Aerial view of Advanced Photon Source, superimposed image of green swirls over ring, lines leading off to two rectangular shapes. (Aerial photo by Tigerhill Studios. Illustration by Mark Lopez/ Argonne National Laboratory.)

In July 2019, Argonne gets the green light to upgrade the Advanced Photon Source. Targeted for completion in as early as late 2023, this upgrade will help maintain Argonne's leadership in hard X-ray sciences.

 
Optimizing lithium-ion battery recycling. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In 2019, Argonne launched the ReCell Center, the nation’s first lithium-ion battery recycling center focused on the recycling process. Using materials recycled from lithium-ion batteries in new batteries can reduce production costs by 10–30%, lowering overall battery cost. ReCell will help the nation grow a globally competitive recycling industry.

 
The countdown to exascale computing Is on

In 2019, DOE, Argonne, Intel and HPE/Cray announced a collaborative effort to build one of the nation’s first exascale supercomputers, Aurora. Targeted for delivery in 2022, Aurora will integrate advanced simulation, data analysis and artificial intelligence capabilities at an unprecedented scale, enabling researchers to address challenging questions about the universe, healthcare, national security and more.

 

In 2020, Argonne, in collaboration with Northern Illinois University, discovered a new electrocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into ethanol with very high energy efficiency and low cost. Ethanol is a particularly desirable end-product, as it is an ingredient in nearly all U.S. gasolines and is widely used in industry.

 
Closeup of scientist's face observing equipment. (Image by Mark Lopez / Argonne National Laboratory.)

In August 2020, Argonne announced the launch of Q-NEXT, one of the first five Quantum Information Science Research Centers in the nation. Q-NEXT aims to create a domestic supply chain of new quantum materials and technologies for a robust quantum economy.

 
Fighting a global pandemic. (Image by Vector-3D/Shutterstock.)

Scientists at Argonne joined forces with research institutions throughout the nation and world to combat the spread of COVID‑19. Using Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, scientists have determined more than 150 structures of the SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins, which are helpful in creating vaccines. Argonne's high-performance computing resources have been used to  identify potential treatments and create models for predicting the spread of the virus in the Chicagoland area.

 
Illustration of charge meter, fully charged cylindrical battery, car image above. (Image by U.S. Department of Energy.)

Using Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, researchers demonstrated a combination of techniques that allowed them to peer inside a battery and track and measure ion movement as it operated. The new method could be the key to designing more efficient batteries for specific uses, such as powering electric cars and airplanes. 

 
Quantum loop map. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Scientists from Argonne and the University of Chicago entangled photons across a 52-mile network in the Chicago suburbs, an important step in developing a national quantum internet. Headquartered at Argonne, the loop is amongst the longest land-based quantum networks in the nation. The quantum internet of the future will consist of a highly secure and far-reaching network of quantum computers and other quantum devices, ushering in a new era of communications.

 
Post-classical computing and advanced intelligence. (Image by Suwin/Shutterstock.)

By 2050, Argonne will advance computing power by 100–1,000 times per decade, paving the way for yottascale (10 to the 24th power) computing, as well as scalable quantum devices and artificial intelligence (AI). The more powerful computers and AI will yield new insights into the behavior of physical systems.

 
Harnessing the machinery of life. (Image by Kostsov/Shutterstock.)

By 2050, synthetic biology could foster the development of genetic engineering, 3D-printed human tissues and organs, and biologically engineered robots that can advance drug delivery of gather microplastics in the ocean. Argonne plans to use its strong ecosystem of materials science, chemistry, computing (including AI), and characterization to advance biological pursuits.

 
Earth systems in the Anthropocene era. (Image by Scott Book/Shutterstock.)

Through its combination of next-generation supercomputers and expert geoscientists, Argonne will develop by 2050 the capabilities to position mankind with a fuller understanding the implication of climate change. Ultimately, Argonne seeks to understand at multiple and relevant scales what actions, if any, would be possible to reverse the effects of climate change. 

 
Comprehensive characterization to create the digital twin. (Image by metamorworks/Shutterstock.)

Characterization, which translates the physical into the virtual world, thus creating a digital twin, will need to be increasingly flexible and tailored specifically to systems by 2050. Argonne will provide the full set of capabilities for bridging the physical and virtual worlds through computing, artificial intelligence, and X-ray characterization capabilities.

 

In 30 years, the nation may be more vulnerable to violent attacks by extremists or natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. To address these future challenges, Argonne will expand its national security portfolio, which includes activities in converting nuclear reactors, agent-based modeling, and cyber and grid security.

 
Materials, chemistry, and manufacturing for a sustainable society. (Image by Inna Bigun/Shutterstock.)

Over the next 30 years, Argonne will employ world-leading computation and artificial intelligence capabilities to build precise materials and chemistries for on-demand, specific purposes. Argonne seeks to develop affordable materials and devices in significant quantities as part of the effort to achieve a truly net-zero, circular economy.

 
Fundamental studies of the physical universe. (Image by ShadeDesign/Shutterstock.)

Building on the Standard Model of particle physics from the 20th century, Argonne by 2050 will deepen our understanding of the physical universe from quark-gluon confinement to the large-scale structure of the Universe. Argonne’s AI and advanced accelerator technologies will build our knowledge of the nature of space and time.