Skip to main content
Argonne National Laboratory

Our History

Inspiring the nation’s future

Over 75 years, Argonne’s mission has evolved from pioneering nuclear power to a broad portfolio of research that benefits humankind.

Argonne traces its birth from a secret mission — the Manhattan Project — to create the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Today, the laboratory’s initial charge to find peacetime uses for atomic energy has broadly expanded, as researchers seek to find new discoveries in energy, climate and health that will advance American prosperity and security.

In its embryonic state as the ​“Metallurgical Lab,” the team of physicists who would give rise to Argonne constructed Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942, underneath the University of Chicago’s Stagg football field stands. Chicago Pile-1 was the site of the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Because the experiments were deemed too dangerous to conduct in a major city, the operations were moved to a spot in nearby Palos Hills and renamed ​“Argonne” after the surrounding forest.

This drawing depicts the historic event on December 2, 1942, when a group of 49 scientists led by Enrico Fermi created the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. (Image copyright Chicago Historical Society)

On July 1, 1946, the laboratory was formally chartered as Argonne National Laboratory to conduct​ cooperative research in nucleonics,” making it the country’s first national laboratory. At the request of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission — later known as the U.S. Department of Energy — Argonne began developing nuclear reactors for the nation’s peaceful nuclear energy program. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the laboratory moved to a larger location in Lemont, Illinois, and established a remote location in Idaho, called Argonne-West,” to conduct further nuclear research.

In quick succession, the laboratory designed and built Chicago Pile 3, the world’s first heavy-water moderated reactor, and the Experimental Breeder Reactor I, built in Idaho, which lit a string of four light bulbs to produce the world’s first nuclear-generated electricity in 1951. Knowledge gained from the Argonne experiments formed the foundation for the designs of most of the commercial reactors currently used throughout the world for electric power generation, and continue to inform designs of liquid-metal reactors for future commercial power stations.

Conducting classified research, the laboratory was heavily secured; all employees and visitors needed badges to pass a checkpoint, many of the buildings were classified, and the laboratory itself was fenced and guarded. Such alluring secrecy drew visitors both authorized — including King Leopold III of Belgium and Queen Frederica of Greece — and unauthorized. Shortly past 1 a.m. on February 6, 1951, Argonne guards discovered reporter Paul Harvey near the 10-foot (3.0 m) perimeter fence, his coat tangled in the barbed wire. Searching his car, guards found a previously prepared four-page broadcast detailing the saga of his unauthorized entrance into a classified hot zone.” He was brought before a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to obtain information on national security and transmit it to the public, but was not indicted.

Not all nuclear technology went into developing reactors, however. While designing a scanner for reactor fuel elements in 1957, Argonne physicist William Nelson Beck put his own arm inside the scanner and obtained one of the first ultrasound images of the human body. Remote manipulators designed to handle radioactive materials laid the groundwork for more complex machines used to clean up contaminated areas, sealed laboratories or caves. In 1964, the ​“Janus” reactor opened to study the effects of neutron radiation on biological life, providing research for guidelines on safe exposure levels for workers at power plants, laboratories and hospitals. Scientists at Argonne pioneered a technique to analyze the moon’s surface using alpha radiation, which launched aboard the Surveyor 5 in 1967 and later analyzed lunar samples from the Apollo 11 mission.

In addition to nuclear work, the laboratory maintained and greatly expanded a strong presence in the basic research of physics and chemistry. In 1955, Argonne chemists co-discovered the elements einsteinium and fermium, elements 99 and 100 in the periodic table. In 1962, laboratory chemists produced the first compound of the inert noble gas xenon, opening up a new field of chemical bonding research. In 1963, they discovered the hydrated electron, which is a free electron in a solution and the smallest possible anion.

That same year, Argonne researcher Maria Goeppert Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the nuclear shell model. This discovery gave scientists some of the deepest insights into the character of the nucleus and charted a new course for nuclear physics over the next several decades.

Crystals of xenon tetrafluoride.

On October 2, 1962, Argonne announced the creation of xenon tetrafluoride, the first simple compound of xenon, a noble gas widely thought to be chemically inert. The creation opened a new era for the study of chemical bonds. 

High-energy physics also made a leap forward when Argonne was chosen as the site of the 12.5 GeV Zero Gradient Synchrotron, a proton accelerator that opened in 1963. A bubble chamber allowed scientists to track the motions of subatomic particles as they zipped through the chamber; in 1970, they observed a fundamental particle called a neutrino in a hydrogen bubble chamber for the first time.

Meanwhile, the laboratory was also helping to design the reactor for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, which steamed for more than 513,550 nautical miles (951,090 km). The next nuclear reactor model was Experimental Boiling Water Reactor, the forerunner of many modern nuclear plants, and Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II), which was sodium-cooled, and included a fuel recycling facility. EBR-II was later modified to test other reactor designs, including a fast-neutron reactor and, in 1982, the Integral Fast Reactor concept — a revolutionary design that reprocessed its own fuel, reduced its atomic waste and withstood safety tests of the same failures that triggered the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters.

Argonne moved on to specialize in other areas, while capitalizing on its experience in physics, chemical sciences and metallurgy. In 1987, the laboratory was the first to successfully demonstrate a pioneering technique called plasma wakefield acceleration, which accelerates particles in much shorter distances than conventional particle accelerators. It also cultivated a strong battery research program, including the invention in the 1990s of a revolutionary cathode material that lasted longer and stored more energy than other battery materials. The nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) cathode later found its way into electric vehicles produced by General Motors.

Following a major push by then-director Alan Schriesheim, the laboratory was chosen as the site of the Advanced Photon Source, a major X-ray facility which was completed in 1995 and produced the brightest X-rays in the world at the time of its construction. The APS has paved the way for research in protein structures that led to several Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, and it has been used to study everything from batteries to beetles.

In 2003, Argonne materials scientist Alexei Abrikosov won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in condensed matter physics, particularly involving type II superconductors used in manufacturing electromagnets capable of producing strong magnetic fields like in MRI machines.

The early part of the 21st century saw Argonne’s primary mission transition away from nuclear energy and diversify into a broader range of energy types and storage. The laboratory’s former western campus, Argonne-West, became the Idaho National Laboratory in 2005.

The next year, in 2006, Argonne developed another national user facility, the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF). At the ALCF, scientists have used several generations of supercomputers to carry out modeling and simulation experiments of materials, climate, diseases, and other phenomena and substances. These supercomputers have included the 557-teraflop Intrepid, 10-petaflop Mira, 15.6-petaflop Theta and the upcoming Aurora, which will be Argonne’s first exascale supercomputer. Recently, artificial intelligence and machine learning have become major topics of interest as scientists seek new ways to improve the accuracy and speed of their models of systems as tiny as viruses and as big as galaxies.

The ALCF was not the only user facility that began operations at Argonne in the mid-2000s. The laboratory also built the Center for Nanoscale Materials, one of five Nanoscale Science Research Centers in the nation. Research at the CNM has led to the development of everything from ultrananocrystalline diamond films for artificial retinas and accelerators to specialized sponges that can soak up enormous quantities of spilled oil.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy chose Argonne to lead the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Innovation Hub that is situated at Argonne. Argonne’s battery program has been strong for decades, but received a big shot in the arm from JCESR. In its initial five-year mission, JCESR was charged with reducing the cost, increasing the energy density, increasing the lifetime, and increasing the safety of electric vehicle and grid storage batteries. JCESR was renewed in 2017 for another five years with a renewed mission to improve the affordability of batteries both for transportation and for the electric grid.

In 2020, Argonne was identified as a major player in the nation’s quantum efforts, as the laboratory was awarded Q-NEXT, a primary quantum information science research center that will, like JCESR, form a hub of research dedicated to a specific topic. Q-NEXT focuses on how to reliably control, store, and transmit quantum information at distances that could be as small as a computer chip or as large as the distance between Chicago and San Francisco. Addressing this challenge requires developing novel quantum materials and integrating them into devices and systems, developing new classes of ultra-precise sensors, and overcoming losses that occur when quantum information is communicated over long distances. 

Argonne’s first seventy-five years of existence has seen it become a pioneer in many fields, ranging from nuclear energy to computing to X-ray science to energy storage. Argonne has a proud legacy of discovery upon which it continues to build today and in the future.