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Article | Communications and Public Affairs

Meet George Crabtree: Director, Joint Center for Energy Storage Research

We Are Argonne

George Crabtree was an Argonne National Laboratory Senior Scientist and Distinguished Fellow. He was also the Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) from its founding in 2012 until his death in January 2023. This interview was carried out in 2021, soon after he was recognized by Argonne for 55 years of service to the laboratory. In this profile, he shared an introspective look at Argonne’s growth and his long career as an award-winning senior scientist.

You have been at Argonne for 55 of its 75 years of existence. That’s extraordinary. What brought you to Argonne and what made you stay?

I came to Argonne as an undergraduate intern from Northwestern University. I was an engineering student, and my professors were encouraging me to take an internship. It was a pretty serious decision because it was a recurring internship, which meant it would take five years for me to graduate instead of four. So, interning was going to be a bit more of an investment, but I thought it was a good idea to get the hands-on experience. I had many choices for where to do my internship, but I chose Argonne hoping to be accepted because I was very interested in the basic science part of engineering. I was accepted, and I was really surprised when I first came to Argonne. I thought, Oh, it’s so big!”

After receiving my master’s degree from the University of Washington in Seattle, I came back to Chicago and needed a job, so I called Argonne and they offered me a lab technician position. I was a 40-hour-a-week lab technician but after a couple of months, I realized I really had to get a Ph.D. and become a research scientist. So, I discussed this with my Argonne colleagues. They sent me to what was then a new physics program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and they paid for it. Argonne paid for my Ph.D. That was standard procedure in those days. I thought, I’m getting a deal here.” So I went to school at night and kept my day job as a technician. And I was able to do my thesis research at Argonne within the research group where I was a technician. It was all very convenient, and I really enjoyed the whole thing. The two experiences together merged perfectly.

When I got my Ph.D., the Lab was good enough to say, okay, we can now make you a research scientist. That was 1974 and I just stayed at the Lab. I’ve been so happy and never saw a reason to leave. I did have opportunities to leave, but I always said no. I just enjoyed the Argonne experience.

What changes has the lab undergone over the last 55 years?

I think the Lab changed as the profession of scientist changed. When I joined the profession, research was done in small groups. My team was comprised of three to five scientists including a technician, and we did research that you could do with a group that size. Over time, as scientific challenges have gotten bigger, we need to engage larger research teams that work collaboratively.

The program that I’m involved with right now, JCESR, is an example of that approach. It’s energy storage across a big spectrum. Basic research develops the batteries, but then they’re going to be used in cars, they’re going to be used in the grid, there is talk of them being used in airplanes for short flights, and you can’t cover that ground with three or four people. You need many, many more.

The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) is an experiment on the far end of team science. It’s a research hub that includes 19 institutions, including Argonne, and about 180 researchers. In addition, DOE just funded five hubs for quantum, and Argonne has one of those. So, it’s become a much more popular way of dealing with big scientific challenges. I’m really happy to have helped to bring this new mode of research into existence. I think it was the positive experience of JCESR and other initiatives as well that gave funders confidence that this is a good thing to pursue. So, DOE has changed, Argonne has changed, and I think the change is still going on, and it’s really great to witness and to be a part.

When you talk about team science, it suggests collaboration, but scientists can be very competitive. So how does team science exist within a competitive environment?

I remember when I first came as a graduate student; for me, the motivation was curiosity. I was just a curious student. I want to know why and how and what’s this all about. Each question would lead to five more questions. I talked to John Ketterson, he was my group leader, and I was talking about this motivation, and he said, Well, that’s you. There are a lot of other scientists who are driven by competition. They want to be first.” So, I realized that, and I became cautious.

However, we’re pretty collaborative within JCESR. I was concerned in the first couple of years about how collaborative we would be. We had 180 people, including senior researchers, postdocs, and graduate students. So, I wondered how we were going to get along. It took us a couple of years to get to know each other. But it has really worked out well. The personal relationships and the professional relationships have been outstanding, and I think that a cross-institutional program like JCESR provides a great example of team science at its best.

In the next 75 years, what would you like to see happen at Argonne?

There is a lot of science and technology that we can significantly advance. For example, everyone recognizes that artificial intelligence presents a huge opportunity, and the Lab has properly embraced it. We have an initiative called AI for Science” that promotes applying artificial intelligence across the laboratory. We’re learning how to do that, and ultimately, we are going to advance research and innovation much faster than what we do now.

Climate change is another area that presents opportunity for science. It’s a big challenge but I do think the Lab, the country, the world can meet the challenge and do things so much better than we’re doing now. The interesting thing about climate change is it may be a 75-year problem. Once we reach decarbonization, the goal being by 2050, we must continue decarbonization efforts in perpetuity. So, we’re going to need lots of new technologies to come on board after 2050 to keep up the pace.

These are two scientific challenges that will grow exponentially in the coming years. These challenges are ideal for Argonne.

What’s your career mantra?

My mantra is Make a bad draft.” That’s because many scientists want to do things perfectly, as do I. I’ll have a draft but want to change a few words, and I know from experience: You can revise until the end of your career, and it still won’t be perfect. So, to get a project started, not to finish it, my mantra is, Make a bad draft.” Write down what you have. It may be in bullet points, in the wrong order, and missing 20% of the things you need. So what? Start with that draft, show it around, think about it overnight, get an additional idea, and after doing that five times, your bad draft is a good draft. That’s the way I work.