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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Eight ways Argonne advanced science in 2020

Throughout 2020, Argonne answered fundamental science questions and provided solutions for the world.

Throughout the year, scientists and engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory conducted groundbreaking research to tackle the nation’s most pressing challenges. Here are eight ways Argonne research made a difference in 2020.

Argonne research helps in the fight against COVID-19

More than 80 research groups from across the country used the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Argonne, to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers logged more than 10,000 hours of time at the APS, discovering — among other things — the ways the virus camouflages itself inside the human body. This pivotal discovery was published in Nature Communications.

One of the most influential contributions the APS made to the COVID-19 vaccines can be traced back to work done at the facility between 2009 and 2013. Scientists at the National Institutes for Health (NIH) discovered a technique that helps the human body generate more effective antibodies against a disease called respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Years later, those same scientists adapted that technique to fight SARS-CoV-2, and their innovation is included in five of the announced vaccine candidates, including those developed by Pfizer and Moderna.

Using a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and supercomputing resources, Argonne researchers are examining the dynamics of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to determine how it fuses with a human host cell, which could advance the search for new medications. In November, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) awarded its first ACM Gordon Bell Special Prize for High Performance Computing-Based COVID-19 Research to a multi-institutional research team that included Argonne. The team showed how the SARS-CoV-2 virus infiltrates the human immune system, setting off a viral chain reaction throughout the body.

Argonne researchers developed CityCOVID, a large-scale agent-based epidemiological model that tracks the movements of millions of simulated individuals, or agents, as they go about their daily activities to predict how disease will spread and the impact of preventive measures, such as mask use. Powered by supercomputers at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility, this model has informed decision making by officials from Chicago, Cook County and Illinois, since early in the pandemic, and was also nominated as a finalist for the ACM Gordon Bell Special Prize.

Argonne heat storage system gathers steam

Applications for Argonne’s thermal energy storage system include combined heat and power systems, power plants, desalination plants, heavy-duty trucks and more. (Image by Shutterstock / Factory Easy.)

The thermal energy storage system, or TESS, can quickly store heat and release it for use when needed, surpassing conventional storage options in flexibility and efficiency. The introduction of TESS, announced on April 7, can capture and store heat from concentrated solar power facilities and is suitable for various commercial applications, including desalination plants, combined heat and power (CHP) systems, industrial processes and heavy-duty trucks.

Researchers have demonstrated that TESS can operate in temperatures over 1,292°F. Its high-energy density makes it smaller and more flexible than commonly used heat storage tanks. Being able to recover and use heat can raise efficiency and cut costs by extracting more energy from the same amount of fuel.

Argonne, AT&T extend climate resiliency project

Image by Shutterstock / eCore Art.)

After a year-long collaboration between Argonne and AT&T to forecast risks from a changing climate in the Southeastern region, the partnership announced in September that they were extending their analysis to cover the contiguous United States. Researchers are projecting the impact of climate at regional, local and neighborhood scales, using high-resolution models and a wide range of statistical methods for estimating uncertainty.

AT&T, in turn, uses these insights as input for its Climate Change Analysis Tool so it can forecast how changes in climate will impact company infrastructure and operations for up to 30 years into the future. As it did with the initial Southeastern pilot, AT&T also will make Argonne’s data free to the general public, which could inspire new scientific applications that could benefit communities at large.

Argonne and partners advance battery technology

The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by Argonne, made significant strides with solid-state batteries as promising successors to today’s lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Researchers at the University of Waterloo, one of 18 JCESR partners, published research in June on enhancing the mobility of Li-ions in solid-state batteries using the paddlewheel effect, which is the coordinated motion of atoms.

In addition, knowing how different ions move through different electrolytes will help researchers figure out how to create batteries that best fit their specific uses. In a breakthrough discovery announced Dec. 3, a group of scientists demonstrated a combination of techniques that allows for the precise measurement of ions moving through a battery during operation.

Funding is vital to such battery-related research and six innovative battery manufacturing projects led by Argonne were awarded funding in August through DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The projects, which span a range of essential components for energy storage, are among 13 battery manufacturing projects at national laboratories that earned combined funding of almost $15 million over three years.

Then in September, Argonne completed its expansion of the Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF), a now 28,000-square-foot facility, where 50 scientists, engineers and support staff develop scalable manufacturing technologies for advanced energy materials and chemicals that can be difficult to manufacture.

Nanodevices for the brain could thwart Alzheimer’s plaques

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) images of the porous silica nanodevices. The exposed amount of surface area provides greater opportunity to attach to the peptide-attracting antibody fragments. (Image by Center for Nanoscale Materials, Argonne National Laboratory.)

In a multidisciplinary study, scientists at Argonne, along with collaborators from the Korean Institute of Science and Technology and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, announced on April 29 that they had developed an approach to prevent plaque formation in Alzheimer’s disease by engineering a nanosized device that captures the dangerous peptides before they can self-assemble.

Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, affects people who have a specific type of plaque, made of self-assembled molecules called β-amyloid (Aβ) peptides, that build up in the brain over time. Researchers are studying ways to prevent the peptides from forming these dangerous plaques to halt development of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.

New electrocatalyst converts carbon dioxide into ethanol

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

Catalysts speed up chemical reactions and form the backbone of many industrial processes. For example, they are essential in transforming heavy oil into gasoline or jet fuel. A research team, led by Argonne in collaboration with Northern Illinois University, said in August that they discovered a new electrocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into ethanol with very high energy efficiency and at a low cost. Ethanol is a desirable commodity because it is an ingredient in nearly all U.S. gasoline and is widely used as an intermediate product in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

Because CO2 is a stable molecule, transforming it into a different molecule is normally energy intensive and costly. Argonne’s process would electrochemically convert the CO2 emitted from industrial processes, such as fossil fuel power plants or alcohol fermentation plants, into valuable commodities at reasonable cost.

Argonne leads launch of quantum science center

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and DOE announced August 26 the creation of five new Quantum Information Science (QIS) Research Centers led by DOE’s national laboratories, including Q-NEXT, led by Argonne. Q-NEXT brings together nearly 100 world-class researchers from three national laboratories, nine universities and 10 leading U.S. technology companies with the single goal of developing the science and technology to control and distribute quantum information. In August, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation and DOE announced more than $1 billion in awards to establish 12 AI and quantum information science (QIS) research institutes. Of the $1 billion, DOE awarded $625 million to Argonne’s Q-NEXT, Brookhaven, Fermi, Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories.

This follows DOE’s unveiling of a report on July 23 that provided a strategy for the development of the national quantum internet that will include all 17 national laboratories, including Argonne. They will serve as the backbone of the coming quantum internet, which will rely on the laws of quantum mechanics to control and transmit information more securely than ever before.

Copper-67 increases radioisotope arsenal to fight cancer

Argonne increased the supply of Copper-67 (Cu-67), a promising medical radioisotope that could lead to new drug discoveries and clinical studies in the fight against cancers, such as neuroendocrine tumors, prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Through support of the DOE Isotope Program, Argonne’s Radioisotope Research and Production Program developed a new method to produce large quantities of this desirable radioisotope during its first full year in operation.

There is a pressing need for new radiopharmaceuticals to advance personalized medicine, coupling diagnostic and therapeutic agents to tailor the treatment to the patient’s individual response. Diagnostic agents enable doctors to visualize tumors and determine the best method of treatment. Therapeutic agents then provide doctors the ability to treat the disease. Cu-67 is called a theragnostic” radioisotope that couples the ability to visualize tumors with the ability to treat the disease in a single radioisotope. The use of this single agent may result in fewer injections and fewer patient visits to the hospital, along with reduced costs.

About Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials
The Center for Nanoscale Materials is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit https://​sci​ence​.osti​.gov/​U​s​e​r​-​F​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​/​U​s​e​r​-​F​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​-​a​t​-​a​-​G​lance.

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 Tandem Linac Accelerator System

This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science, Office of Nuclear Physics, under contract number DE‐AC02‐06CH11357. This research used resources of the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS), a DOE Office of Science User Facility.


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.