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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

10 ways Argonne advanced science in 2021

Argonne scientists sought solutions to urgent problems from COVID-19 to climate change.

Scientists and engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory continually address the most pressing global challenges through groundbreaking research, new partnerships and forward-looking reports. The first article in this series highlighted nine ways Argonne research made a difference in 2021. Here are 10 more.

Partnering to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol

Artistic rendering of electrocatalytic process for conversion of carbon dioxide and water into ethanol. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Greenhouse gases from human activities are the primary drivers of climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the U.S., carbon dioxide makes up 81% of greenhouse gas emissions. To mitigate the effects of climate change, Argonne joined Northern Illinois University (NIU) to develop a prototype for a system that can capture carbon dioxide from manufacturing emissions before it reaches the atmosphere and convert it into ethanol. Ethanol is used in nearly all U.S. gasoline and in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

The $2 million project supports the development of the prototype, which can be scaled up and used to achieve carbon neutral, or even carbon negative, manufacturing. The prototype will be designed for use in a variety of manufacturing areas, such as ethanol manufacturing, thermal power plants and steel and cement production. The University of North Texas is leading the development of an industrial direct-air CO2 capture module, while Argonne, along with Ångström Advanced Inc., and NIU, is developing the electrolyzer system. The prototype is a direct extension of Argonne’s recently discovered electrocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with very high efficiency and high selectivity for the desired final product and at low cost. Argonne and partners expect to develop the prototype in three years.

Paving the way for electric aviation

A white paper released by the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) outlines battery requirements and research and development needs to accelerate the commercialization of electric propulsion — from air taxis to 737-class aircraft. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Electric aviation is expected to grow considerably over the next five to 10 years due to its variety of advantages, including reduced carbon emissions, lower fuel and maintenance costs, and decreased noise and air pollution relative to other forms of air travel. However, electric aviation technologies are currently limited by investments and energy storage capabilities. Argonne is committed to driving the electrification of aviation and is well-poised to do so given its history of battery and energy storage innovations.

In December 2019, Argonne hosted a two-day meeting, convened by DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Glenn Research Center, where nearly 100 experts assessed the unique research and development needs for electric aviation. The resulting white paper released by the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science outlines the battery requirements needed to commercialize electric propulsion for four types of aircrafts: air taxis, 20-passenger commuter aircrafts, 50-passenger regional jets, and 150-passenger 737-class aircraft. By providing an overall framework for investment and R&D needs, the white paper charts a path to give electric aviation wings.

Addressing the increasing effects of climate change

(Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Climate change is already having devastating effects on communities across the U.S. The record-breaking 2020 wildfire season burned more than 10.2 million acres and caused nearly $20 billion in damages. Extreme cold temperatures in February 2021 left more than 4.5 million homes and businesses without power. These impacts disproportionately affect marginalized communities, which often have limited access to resources and healthcare. Collaboration among scientists, decision makers and the public is needed to build more equitable, resilient communities that can withstand the future impacts of a changing climate. 

In April 2021, Argonne hosted the America Resilient virtual climate conference to discuss strategies to prioritize environmental justice and develop robust, high-resolution climate models that can project climate impacts and help local communities mitigate potential risks. Participants also focused on how to provide educational resources and scientific information to help individuals develop climate resilience plans. A report from the conference is available for free on the America Resilient website.

Helping the New York Power Authority prepare for extreme weather and other climate hazards

Hydropower accounts for 80% of the power produced by the NYPA. Pictured is the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station in Lewiston, New York, which is owned and operated by NYPA. (Image by Shutterstock/Elena Berd.)

Extreme weather events, such as fires, floods and droughts, are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change. To prepare for future events, Argonne partnered with the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the largest state public power entity in the U.S., to evaluate its climate risk and how it might affect electricity generation and delivery. The NYPA currently produces 25% of New York State’s power, so threats to this power system from climate change can have drastic impacts on residents and visitors.

Argonne scientists and engineers used powerful models to determine how NYPA’s infrastructure and investment strategy might be affected by a changing climate. Supercomputing capabilities at Argonne enable experts to create hyperlocal climate models and detailed climate projections in the U.S., at record speeds. These models and projections can then be used to develop climate resiliency plans. Argonne developed a climate resiliency plan for the NYPA to help ensure they can provide reliable power to New Yorkers in the face of potential climate risks.

Strengthening the domestic supply chain for lithium-based batteries

The welding arm of an automobile production line. (Image by Shutterstock/Jensen.)

The demand for lithium-based batteries is on the rise as the world seeks out clean energy technologies. But meeting this increased demand requires an immediate expansion of the domestic battery supply chain. Specifically, the U.S. must manufacture 20-30 times the current capacity of lithium-based batteries and build a secure supply chain.

To achieve this, Argonne in partnership with DOE created Li-Bridge, an alliance between public and private sectors, to accelerate the development of a robust and sustainable domestic supply chain for lithium-based batteries. Li-Bridge will host forums on different aspects of the lithium-battery supply chain, and facilitate relationships between private industry and the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries to identify challenges and opportunities related to strengthening the supply chain. In June, the consortium released a National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, 2021–2030. The blueprint outlines five goals for developing a lithium-battery supply chain that generates equitable, clean-energy jobs in the U.S., while mitigating climate change. It also highlights scientific goals for creating new materials and developing a manufacturing base to meet the rising demands of commercial and passenger electric vehicle, stationary storage, aviation and national defense markets.

Making COVID-19 treatments possible

The IMCA-CAT beamline at the Advanced Photon Source, where work was done to determine the structure of Pfizer’s new COVID-19 antiviral treatment candidate. (Image by Lisa Keefe, IMCA-CAT/Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.)

In November, pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced results from a clinical trial showing that an oral antiviral treatment reduced hospitalization and death in adult patients with COVID-19 by 89%. Pfizer has submitted the new treatment, Paxlovid, for emergency use authorization in the U.S. Scientists at Pfizer created Paxlovid with the help of Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science user facility.

Pfizer routinely conducts drug development experiments at the APS because it can deliver high-quality results much faster than the instruments available in its own laboratories. Specifically, the X-rays of the APS probe the atomic structures of proteins, such as those in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, to help scientists create new vaccines and treatments. Previous discoveries made using the APS contributed to the development of vaccines against COVID-19.

Upgrading the Advanced Photon Source

Construction of an experiment station in the Long Beamline Building, part of the APS Upgrade project. (Image by Jason Creps/Argonne National Laboratory.)

A massive upgrade is underway that will enhance the capability of Argonne’s APS, one of the world’s most productive X-ray light sources. When the upgrade is finished, the facility will generate X-rays that are up to 500 times brighter than the extremely bright ones it produces now, paving the way for future scientific discoveries.

The upgrade to the APS involves replacing the inner workings of the machine, including installing a new electron storage ring composed of powerful magnets. Construction of a new building, the Long Beamline Building (LBB), is also in progress and expected to be completed by June 2022. The LBB houses two of the nine new experiment stations designed to make use of brighter X-ray beams that will allow scientists to test thicker samples under various conditions. Many of the existing experiment stations will see significant improvements as well. The upgraded APS is currently scheduled to come online in 2024.

Unveiling a powerful testbed for exascale computing

Polaris provides researchers with a powerful new tool to prepare for science in the exascale era. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) revealed a new supercomputer this year that will be used to prepare various scientific projects for the laboratory’s forthcoming exascale system, Aurora. The new testbed system, named Polaris and developed by HPE, is four times more powerful than Argonne’s current supercomputers. Polaris is designed with leading-edge high performance computing and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to enable scientists to tackle today’s most urgent challenges, from cancer treatments to climate resilience.

The system provides researchers and developers with a platform to optimize software codes and computing workloads for a range of AI, science and engineering projects planned for Aurora, which is being developed through a joint collaboration between Argonne, Intel and HPE. While Polaris is hosted and managed by the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, it will also be integrated with other experimental facilities, including Argonne’s APS and the Center for Nanoscale Materials, all of which are DOE Office of Science user facilities. The delivery and installation of Polaris began in August, and the system will go into use in early 2022.

Co-founding the nation’s first program to support quantum startups

(Image by University of Chicago.)

Argonne became a founding partner of Duality, the first program in the U.S. to accelerate startup companies focused on quantum science and technology. Quantum technology is an emerging field that has the potential to transform advances in physics, engineering and multiple industries.

Duality was launched in April 2021 to provide inventors and entrepreneurs in the Chicago area with the resources and funding needed to translate promising discoveries into real-world applications. Duality will help up to 10 quantum startups each year by connecting them with business experts and leading quantum researchers. The 12-month program also provides each startup with lab and office space, $50,000 of funding, and access to state-of-the-art facilities.

The program, which is led by the University of Chicago and the Chicago Quantum Exchange, involves several other founding partners, including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the non-profit P33. The new program seeks to promote diversity, equity and inclusion by supporting a range of diverse applicants in terms of race, gender and ethnicity.

Searching for undiscovered particles

Argonne’s Ran Hong, left, and Simon Corrodi, right, installing the calibration probe at the 4 Tesla Magnet Facility. (Image by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory.)

Tiny particles can help unravel the vast mysteries of the universe, such as how it expanded and evolved after the Big Bang. In the late 1970s, physicists established the Standard Model of physics that classifies various tiny particles and their properties. When predictions from the Standard Model don’t match particle behaviors observed in experiments, it suggests that there may be undiscovered particles or other forces at work. This past year, scientists at Argonne contributed to an experiment that found such a discrepancy in the behavior of a tiny particle called a muon.  

A muon is an electrically charged particle that wobbles and spins like a top when it’s in a magnetic field. Argonne recently collaborated with the DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and scientists from 46 institutions to measure the muon’s behavior in a magnetic field with an extremely high level of precision. The scientists used Argonne’s 4 Tesla Magnet Facility to calibrate the probes in the experiment to ensure the measurements were accurate. Argonne experts also configured the hardware and software to read data from the probes and integrate it for analysis. Using this approach, they found that the behaviors they observed differed from those predicted in the Standard Model. These results have the potential to reshape our understanding of the universe.

In 2021, two papers describing this experiment were published in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review A. Scientists have a variety of ideas about what might be causing this discrepancy, but they need to do follow-up experiments to test them. Several projects are already underway that are using Argonne’s Solenoid Facility to calibrate their magnetic field probes.

The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.

The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, is a major partnership that integrates researchers from many disciplines to overcome critical scientific and technical barriers and create new breakthrough energy storage technology. Led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, partners include national leaders in science and engineering from academia, the private sector, and national laboratories. Their combined expertise spans the full range of the technology-development pipeline from basic research to prototype development to product engineering to market delivery.

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://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.