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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

A year in review: Argonne’s breakthroughs in 2022

A quick look at a year’s worth of pivotal discoveries and pioneering leadership in science and technology.

2022 was a busy year at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, full of game-changing innovations, powerful collaborations, and the construction of new facilities. In areas as diverse as quantum science and fighting climate change, Argonne researchers continued to deliver exciting pivotal discoveries and scientific breakthroughs that help ensure U.S. prosperity and security.

Here’s a recap of just some of Argonne’s scientific accomplishments this year.

Designed flexible, wearable electronics for health sensing 

Flexible, wearable electronics are making their way into everyday use. One day, this technology could be used for precision medical sensors attached to the skin, designed to perform health monitoring and diagnosis. Such a skin-like device is being developed in a project between Argonne and The University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.

Worn routinely, future wearable electronics could potentially detect possible emerging health problems — such as heart disease, cancer or multiple sclerosis — even before obvious symptoms appear. The device could also conduct a personalized analysis of the tracked health data while minimizing the need for its wireless transmission.

The device relies on neuromorphic computing, an artificial intelligence (AI) technology that mimics how the brain works by training on past data sets and learning from experience. Its advantages include compatibility with stretchable material, lower energy consumption and faster speed than other types of AI.

Read more about these stretchable electronics.

Brought climate research to neighborhood scale, while including underrepresented groups 

CROCUS will conduct neighborhood-scale climate research. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne and partners have established a new field laboratory called Community Research on Climate and Urban Science (CROCUS), which focuses on the Chicago region. CROCUS will use community input to identify questions and specific areas of urban climate change to study, ensuring that research results directly benefit local residents. CROCUS researchers will also work with organizations and students to collect on-the-ground data and develop climate models.

CROCUS researchers will measure Chicago’s temperature, precipitation and soil conditions. They will explore how trees, open spaces, buildings, expressways and Lake Michigan are shaping the city’s climate, as well as how the Chicago area influences the regional climate. And because no two communities are alike, the study will create more detailed climate models than ever before to reveal the effects of climate change on individual neighborhoods.

Researchers will be able to predict how climate will evolve at a much smaller scale — even down to street level. This will help communities identify solutions that will make their neighborhoods resilient against the effects of a changing climate. To address the underrepresentation of people of color in this field of study, the CROCUS collaborative includes minority-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities.

Read more about CROCUS.

Partnered with AT&T and FEMA to launch Climate Risk and Resilience Portal

Argonne, AT&T and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have launched the Climate Risk and Resilience Portal (ClimRR), which helps ensure access to cutting-edge science for climate projections to help improve America’s preparedness for future climate extremes.

Using climate science modeling that is among the most sophisticated methodologies worldwide, ClimRR gives state, local, tribal and territorial emergency managers as well as community leaders free access to localized data about future climate risks so that they can prepare their communities to be more resilient.

Climate projections from ClimRR can be overlaid with community and infrastructure information sourced from Argonne’s Resilience Analysis and Planning Tool (RAPT). Combining data from ClimRR and RAPT allows users to understand local-scale climate risks as they pertain to existing community demographics and infrastructure, including the location of vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure.

Read more on climate modeling for resilience.

Looked deep into a flame for better biofuels

Biofuels are fuels made from plants, algae or animal waste. Understanding the dynamics of how these fuels burn is essential for building clean and efficient biofuel-powered engines. One important factor that influences these dynamics is how the temperature varies within a flame produced by combustion.

Scientists from Argonne, Yale University and Penn State University have developed an X-ray technique to measure temperatures in an extremely hot flame.

Measuring flame temperatures is surprisingly difficult. Researchers have previously used lasers and other devices to evaluate flames, but soot particles in the flames can interfere. Since X-rays are unaffected by soot particles, they provide a better view of the combustion. Researchers can now use information provided by the new X-ray technique to reduce emissions from biofuel-powered engines.

Read more about how scientists look at biofuel combustion.

Developed a material for a computer that mimics the brain

Hydrogen ions in the nickelate enable one of four functions at different voltages (applied by platinum and gold electrodes at top). The functions are artificial synapse, artificial neuron, capacitor and resistor. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

A team of researchers from Argonne and Purdue University has developed neuromorphic” materials — electronic components that function similarly to the human brain. These materials can learn” new information and reconfigure their circuitry in a brain-like way.

Combining this ability with the power of AI, computers could carry out complex tasks faster and more accurately, while expending much less energy. One example is in interpreting complex medical images.

The key material in the new device is referred to as a perovskite nickelate (NdNiO3). The team infused this material with hydrogen and attached electrodes that allow electrical pulses to be applied at different voltages. By applying a certain voltage, the researchers could control the movement of hydrogen in the nickelate, which determines the electronic properties of the material.

Read more about this neuromorphic material.

Addressed a major challenge for sodium-ion batteries

Transition electron microscopic image of newly synthesized cathode material (left). Schematic shows strain and stress induced into the layered cathode structure (right). (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

For electric vehicles to more fully saturate the market, scientists need to develop lower cost batteries that can power vehicles for greater ranges. Also desirable are low-cost 
batteries for the energy grid to store the intermittent clean energy from solar and wind technologies and power hundreds of thousands of homes.

To meet those needs, researchers around the world are racing to develop batteries beyond the current standard of lithium-ion materials. One of the more promising candidates is the sodium-ion battery. It is particularly attractive because of the greater abundance and lower cost of sodium compared with lithium. However, it undergoes a fairly rapid performance decline when it is repeatedly charged and discharged, which has stymied commercialization.

Argonne researchers recently discovered this behavior is caused by the occurrence of atomic-scale defects that form during the steps used to prepare the cathode material. These defects eventually lead to a structural earthquake in the cathode, resulting in catastrophic performance decline during battery cycling.

Armed with this knowledge, battery developers will now be able to adjust synthesis conditions to fabricate far superior sodium-ion cathodes.

Read more about the potential to improve sodium-ion batteries.

Worked to reduce the cost of nuclear energy by using artificial intelligence

Nuclear power plants are expensive in part because they demand constant monitoring and maintenance to ensure consistent power flow and safety. Argonne is midway through a $1 million, three-year project to explore how smart, computerized systems could change the economics.

A typical nuclear plant can hold hundreds of sensors, all of them monitoring different parts to make sure they are working properly. The job of inspecting each sensor and other system components currently rests with staff who walk the plant floor. Instead, algorithms could verify data by learning how a normal sensor functions and looking for anomalies.

The project aims to create a computer architecture that could detect problems in a reactor early and recommend appropriate actions to human operators.

Researchers estimate the technology could save the nuclear industry more than $500 million a year.

Read more about how AI is helping reduce the cost of nuclear power.

Made multiple quantum breakthroughs

The chips used in the experiment are made from silicon carbide, an inexpensive and commonly used material. (Image by David Awschalom/University of Chicago.)

Scientists worldwide are racing to develop a new kind of computer based on use of quantum bits, or qubits. A qubit is special because it can simultaneously encode both 0” and 1” states, unlike bits used in conventional computers. Future quantum computers with many qubits may have capabilities beyond modern supercomputers.

Researchers at Argonne, UChicago and Washington University in St. Louis created a new qubit platform by freezing neon gas into a solid at very low temperatures, spraying electrons from a light bulb’s filament onto the solid, and trapping a single electron there. This relatively simple system shows great promise to be developed into ideal building blocks for future quantum computers.

One important part of making quantum systems work is increasing their coherence time — how long they can maintain information. Typically, coherence times are measured in milliseconds. However, in a UChicago and Argonne study, scientists found a way to increase the coherence time to longer than five seconds in silicon carbide, a record. The long coherence time could mean that devices based on this commercially available material may be used to develop a future quantum internet.

Read more about designing ideal qubits and achieving extended coherence.

Laid the groundwork for Aurora

Aurora is being installed in a new wing of the ALCFs data center, where work has been underway for several years to expand and upgrade its space. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne’s new massive exascale supercomputer, Aurora, has begun to take shape.

Occupying the space of two professional basketball courts and weighing 600 tons, Aurora will be theoretically capable of delivering more than two exaflops of computing power. That means it should be able to perform more than 2 billion billion calculations per second, making it one of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

When Aurora is completed next year, its high computing speed and artificial intelligence capabilities will enable science that is impossible today.

Housed at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility, Aurora will allow researchers to tackle a wide range of scientific problems, such as advancing the design of more efficient airplanes, investigating the mysteries of the cosmos, modeling the impacts of climate change and accelerating the discovery of new materials. 

Read more about the installation of Aurora.

Prepared for the Advanced Photon Source upgrade

Two X-ray beams will operate simultaneously, one for advanced spectroscopy and one for ultrafast, time-resolved experiments. Close proximity of these beamlines means one monochromator needs a small horizontal profile so that a transport pipe can pass by. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

The Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science user facility, is about to undergo an extensive upgrade, one that will increase the brightness of its X-ray beams by up to 500 times.

Those brighter beams will open new doors to discovery for the 5,500 scientists who use the APS in a typical year. Advancements made at the upgraded APS will lead to longer-lasting and faster-charging batteries, more durable materials for roads and bridges and more effective vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases. In short, they will affect our everyday lives for the better.

Upgrading the APS is a monumental effort — the project team will remove the electron storage ring at the heart of the APS and replace it with a new, state-of-the-art one. New beamlines will be built, and existing ones updated. One step taken for the upgrade this year was the consolidation of several scientific programs into their new, updated home at one of the existing beamlines. When the upgraded APS comes online in 2024, it will join with the Aurora supercomputer to transform science at Argonne.

Read more about preparations for the APS Upgrade.

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.

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.