Science and technology from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory can change the world. But to get it to the marketplace, where it can have the most impact on people’s lives, requires partners from industry. Over the decades, Argonne has worked to create a portfolio of discoveries that have everyday use. Today, working with industry to make them available is one of Argonne’s key objectives.
Argonne works with companies of every shape and size, from Fortune 100 titans to startups just getting off the ground. “We have the ability to make a difference all along the value chain,” said Megan Clifford, Argonne’s associate laboratory director for science and technology partnerships and outreach.
Former X-ray physicist Greg Halder has seen firsthand how the laboratory has put an increasing emphasis on its industrial partnerships. Halder left Argonne in 2015 to obtain his M.B.A. at the University of Texas. When he returned to the laboratory in 2017, he noticed a strengthened commitment in the laboratory’s work with industry.
“All of a sudden, there were a number of things that appeared while I was gone, including large-scale centers specifically devoted to bringing new industrial partners to the lab,” Halder said.
“National laboratories like Argonne work hand in hand with many different industrial partners to advance technologies that can make a difference in our everyday lives.” — Megan Clifford, Argonne associate laboratory director for science and technology partnerships and outreach.
Halder now helps support one of these centers, the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS). ACCESS seeks to disseminate the laboratory’s extensive collection of battery breakthroughs through agreements with companies looking for the next energy discovery that will reshape everything from transportation to grid storage.
The laboratory’s long history of energy storage commercialization dates back to the trailblazing nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) cathode material developed at Argonne in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For an invention like the NMC cathode to traverse the long path from an atomic-scale breakthrough to powering a new vehicle requires partnership. “The NMC material was originally a basic science breakthrough,” Halder said. “Now, it is the dominant chemistry found in many different electric vehicle batteries today from a range of different manufacturers — it’s all thanks to the ability of Argonne and industry to work together to develop a game-changing innovation.”
“By working together, Argonne and its industry partners enable the successful development of useful technologies,” Clifford added. “National laboratories like Argonne work hand in hand with many different industrial partners to advance technologies that can make a difference in our everyday lives.”
As companies describe their needs, Argonne offers a customized set of capabilities and intellectual property that can address their challenges. “Laboratories like Argonne offer a unique nucleus of capabilities and expertise that power the kinds of basic discoveries on which most, if not all, of the technologies we use today are based,” Halder said. “Industry wants something that will immediately solve a real-world challenge as an application, and it’s our goal to find as many ways as we can of bridging that gap.”
One way that companies make use of Argonne technology is through licensing agreements, in which the rights to intellectual property that has been patented are transferred for a period of time, either exclusively or nonexclusively, to various companies. Companies that have acquired the rights to the NMC cathode battery material, for instance, include GM, LG Chem and BASF.
There are many other ways companies can do work with — or at — the laboratory. Cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) fund researchers at Argonne to do work in conjunction with scientists from industry. Through these cooperative agreements, many companies have discovered that the DOE national laboratories offer unique expertise and research centers they cannot find anywhere else. “Frequently, companies see Argonne as a place where they can come to do research working alongside world-class experts and using unparalleled facilities,” Clifford said.
“Our relationship with Argonne goes beyond providing safe and reliable power that enables their critical work,” said Gil Quiniones, CEO of ComEd. “Access to great minds and advanced technology is also a unique benefit of working with a prestigious national lab like Argonne. In the latest example, we are partnering on a study that is helping us to learn more about climate change so we can bring innovative technology to the grid and ensure clean and resilient energy for all customers.”
Some examples of significant CRADAs recently undertaken between Argonne and industry include topics such as engine design with Caterpillar or manufacturing fiber materials like those found in medical masks with 3M.
“We have found great value in partnering with Argonne,” said Adrienne Lotto Walker, vice president, chief risk and resilience officer at the New York Power Authority. “We are leveraging Argonne’s hyperlocal climate modeling and infrastructure resilience expertise to better assess how our assets and business may be affected by climate change and extreme weather. Being proactive on this front is critical to our ability to deliver for our customers.”
The advantage of a national laboratory is that it maintains state-of-the-art large-scale science facilities that would be too expensive and cumbersome for an individual company to operate on its own. Examples at Argonne include the Advanced Photon Source (APS) and the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, both DOE Office of Science user facilities. By applying for time on the laboratory’s world-renowned supercomputers or X-ray beams, among other facilities, companies have access to experiments and simulations that would otherwise be beyond their grasp.
In some cases, companies like Eli Lilly contract with the laboratory to use the laboratory’s beamlines for proprietary research. Other times companies will make use of the laboratory’s existing or past research to develop new medicines, treatments or drugs that can help save lives. Recently the APS was used by Pfizer researchers to support their development of new antiviral drugs, including Paxlovid, used to fight COVID-19 infections.
Sometimes, research at the laboratory forms the foundation for the launch of new companies. This happens when a researcher decides to take entrepreneurial leave to commercialize technology they’ve worked on over the course of their careers. One of these companies, Advanced Diamond Technologies, was spun off to commercialize diamond coatings. In 2019, the company was acquired by mechanical seal company John Crane.
Additionally, in the past five years, Argonne has been home to Chain Reaction Innovations — a Laboratory-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program supported by DOE in which startup companies are given a two-year runway of mentorship and resources, including facilities and experts from Argonne.
In this two-year period, these companies advance their deep tech innovations, build their enterprises and secure venture capital. “Chain Reaction Innovations has been instrumental in the success of new businesses. We’ve supported 35 startups to date in the program, which has led to new, clean technologies and more than 434 new jobs and counting,” Clifford said.
By strengthening the connections between Argonne and its industry partners, Clifford believes that the laboratory’s pivotal discoveries can ultimately have a more transformative impact on society. “There are things that national laboratories do extraordinarily well, and there are things that industry is the leader in,” she said. “By combining our strengths and working together, we can move those next game-changing innovations to market to make a profound impact on people’s lives and the world we live in.”
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.
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://energy.gov/science.