Code-named the “Metallurgical Lab,” the team constructed Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942, underneath the University of Chicago’s Stagg football field stands. 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.
On July 1, 1946, the laboratory was formally chartered as Argonne National Laboratory to conduct “cooperative research in nucleonics.” At the request of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, it 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 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.
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 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 the 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. In 1994, however, the U.S. Congress terminated funding for the bulk of Argonne’s nuclear programs.
Argonne moved 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 accelerators. It also cultivated a strong battery research program.
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.