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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Energy Secretary Granholm virtually tours Argonne

The secretary’s first visit to one of DOE’s 17 national laboratories included stops at the lab’s world-leading R&D facilities and an overview of the lab’s clean energy and discovery science research.

On April 14, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm virtually visited the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. On her first visit to a DOE national laboratory since taking office two months ago, Secretary Granholm learned first-hand about Argonne R&D that is helping the U.S reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In her remarks at the Argonne-convened America Resilient virtual climate conference immediately preceding her visit to Argonne, Granholm said:

Argonne is reimagining the bounds of what humanity believes possible and unlocking answers to our biggest questions. You are inventing technologies most people couldn’t even conceive of in their dreams, making it possible to deploy them at scale and ready them for the commercial marketplace, and clearing the way for America to win the future.”

Secretary Granholm’s keynote address

I thank Argonne not only for the visit and tour but also for the extraordinary work it does to help ensure we move forward as a nation.” — U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm

Secretary Granholm referred to the national labs as DOE’s Crown Jewels,” and Argonne’s world-class research in virtually every scientific discipline fits that description. Argonne’s work is aided by a suite of national user facilities that support the efforts of more than 6,000 researchers each year.

It was an honor to show Secretary Granholm just a few of our world-leading research facilities, and share with her some of the ways that we have accelerated science and technology to drive U.S. prosperity and security over the last 75 years,” said Laboratory Director Paul Kearns. 

The secretary’s tour started at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), one of the laboratory’s five DOE Office of Science user facilities. She viewed an experimental area at the APS that powers pivotal discoveries in the life sciences — including research toward COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.

The APS generates ultrabright X-rays, a billion times brighter than those doctors and dentists use,” explained Stephen Streiffer, Argonne’s deputy laboratory director for science and technology and interim associate laboratory director for Photon Sciences. Scientists harness these X-rays to see inside materials and capture images of their structures. Research at the APS leads to stronger and more durable materials, longer-lasting batteries, cleaner energy solutions and more effective vaccines and treatments for diseases such as COVID-19.”

APS researchers also showcased some of the intricate components being built for the APS Upgrade, which will generate X-rays up to 500 times brighter when it sees first light in 2023, enabling science at an unprecedented scale.

The next stop on the tour was the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF), also a DOE Office of Science user facility. Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for Computing, Environment and Life Sciences, walked the secretary through the building under construction for the Aurora exascale computer that will be installed in 2022. Stevens explained the massive electrical and mechanical infrastructure needed to support one of the world’s fastest computers.

DOE started working on the exascale computing initiative in 2007, and at the time, we weren’t sure it was possible,” Stevens said. The initiative is not only deploying these big systems at Argonne and other labs, it is also investing in large-scale applications like optimizing wind farms, earthquake science, subsurface transport and cancer research.”

Stevens also highlighted a key area of research already underway using ALCF supercomputers and that Aurora will significantly advance — the prediction of the effects on climate change at the scale of individual cities and regions. The topic was particularly timely, as the secretary’s tour followed her keynote remarks at the America Resilient conference that focused on science-based solutions to help all communities and industries build resilience to the impacts of climate change.

The last stop on the facility tour was the Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF), where Secretary Granholm visited two labs used to develop innovative, scalable manufacturing processes for critical energy materials. Researchers specifically focus on taking materials that are made at the milligram scale and converting them to the kilogram and tens of kilograms scale, said Suresh Sunderrajan, associate laboratory director for Energy and Global Security at Argonne. Materials being researched include those for vehicle technologies, energy storage, water purification and the circular economy, he said.

What industry wants to know, before making a significant investment, is that a process for a new, novel energy material or chemical is sufficiently de-risked — in other words, that it can be made with the quality, reproducibility, consistency, scale and economics needed for commercial application,” Sunderrajan said. That’s what this facility is all about. Typically, it has taken two to three decades for a novel energy material to make it out from the lab all the way to commercial use. With the aggressive decarbonization goals we have set, we simply must accelerate that process. We believe the way to do that is through a science-based facility like the MERF, where we can take a process that typically takes a decade or longer and bring it down to less than five years.”

At the scale-up lab, Argonne researcher Venkat Srinivasan explained how advanced technologies are applied to developing new chemistries for the next generation of batteries.

Battery technology is the key for decarbonization, both for transportation and for the grid,” said Srinivasan, who is the deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research and the director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science. The challenge is taking innovation in the lab setting and making it manufacturable — and doing it not in 20 years, but five years. At Argonne, we have a vision for how to solve this challenge, and it involves close collaboration between basic science, applied science and industry.”

The secretary also learned how researchers from industry, academia and national labs use the MERF to produce kilogram quantities of experimental materials and distribute materials for industrial evaluation and prototyping.

In addition to virtually popping in on laboratory research facilities, the secretary also heard presentations from three teams of lab researchers on diverse topics. A discussion of Argonne’s new location in the South Side of Chicago leading to increasing STEM engagement with under-resourced communities segued into a presentation on Argonne’s R&D work toward a circular economy — pioneering discoveries in materials and chemistry that will protect the long-term sustainability of our planet.

380 million tons of plastics are created worldwide each year, and over 75 percent of those materials are discarded after a single use,” Argonne chemist Max Delferro said. At Argonne, we have embraced multiple strategies to help solve the plastics problem — from basic to applied research. For example, with the support of the Basic Energy Sciences program at DOE, we are aiming to discover selective catalysts for the transformation of discarded single-use polyolefins such as plastic bags and food packaging, to higher-value products such as performance automotive lubricants and other products.”

The final set of researchers outlined how Argonne leverages multidisciplinary teams, world-class facilities, and powerful tools to advance quantum information science. Quantum science and technology has the potential to revolutionize science and business through the development of ultrafast, unhackable communications, ultrafast computing that could point the way to new life-saving drugs, and exquisitely precise geonavigational sensing that could be leveraged for national defense.

At the conclusion of the secretary’s rapid-fire introduction to Argonne’s varied research program, she had heard many examples of how the lab is helping build a clean energy economy, advance manufacturing, fight climate change and help under-served communities.

I thank Argonne not only for the visit and tour but also for the extraordinary work it does to help ensure we move forward as a nation,” Granholm said.

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.