Argonne events reflect on past, look toward future innovations
Argonne National Laboratory near Lemont is celebrating two milestones: the 75th anniversary of the world's first nuclear chain reaction and the 10th anniversary of a microscopic research center.
Many know of the Southland's connections to the 1940s experiments that were instrumental in the development of the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.
The first chain reaction was a key event that helped bring about the end of World War II. It occurred on Dec. 2, 1942, beneath the bleachers of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park.
"It became clear you really didn't want to do this on a downtown university campus" because of the potential danger, quipped U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, Thursday night during an Argonne lecture commemorating the anniversary.
Scientists relocated their experiments to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County's Red Gate Woods in Palos Township near Willow Springs. Later, in the 1950s, Argonne was developed as the first of the nation's 17 national laboratories.
Since its founding, Argonne scientists have been devoted to researching and developing nuclear and other types of power for practical use as energy sources instead of weapons.
Foster introduced Argonne nuclear engineer Dave Grabaskas, who delivered a talk about nuclear energy and technology as part of Argonne's OutLoud lecture series. About 500 members of the public attended the final session of the six-part, free series.
The study of physics and other sciences was vastly different before the dawn of the Atomic Age, Foster said in his introduction of Grabaskas.
"You realize the number of scientists who really understood what was going on could fit in this auditorium, or a smaller one," he said. "A fraction came together 75 years ago to see if it was possible to make a nuclear chain reaction, and they succeeded."
Before being first elected to Congress in 2008, Foster worked at Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia.
"Bill is proud to say he's the only physicist in Congress, and during his former career at Fermilab he was a member of the team that discovered the top quark, the heaviest form of matter," Argonne Interim Director Paul Kearns said.
Prior to the Argonne lecture, Foster said he attended another 75th anniversary event Thursday at the University of Chicago, where he said he was asked about the Iranian nuclear deal.
"As the only Ph.D. physicist in Congress, people were interested in what I thought," Foster said. He said he was consulted during multiple classified briefings when former President Barack Obama's administration was negotiating the deal.
Other scientists were consulted to review reams of technical analysis to determine whether Iran's nuclear reactors could be modified to make large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium.
"I was thrilled to see those experts … were from Argonne," Foster said. "The majority of nations that used to have dangerous nuclear reactors with high-enriched uranium no longer have dangerous reactors. The world's a safer place because a lot of the work being done here."
Foster was back at Argonne on Friday morning for another event, this one marking the 10th anniversary of Argonne's Center for Nanoscale Materials.
The center deals with microscopic technology "a thousand times smaller than a human cell." Nanotechnology research already has contributed to significant advancements with real-world applications.
The federally funded work at Argonne and other centers creates potential for major private-sector economic development initiatives, ranging from industrial coatings that reduce friction to breakthroughs in lithium battery technology used to power cell phones, vehicles and other devices.
About 90 of Argonne's 3,300 employees work in the Center for Nanoscale Materials, said Supratik Guha, the center's director. The center annually serves about 600 "users" that include public- and private-sector research interests from around the globe. Users seek to develop everything from flat optical lenses (that typically are curved) to sponges that could soak up oil spills.
"These achievements would only be possible through the curiosity of users, engineers and scientists," Guha said.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, scientists at Argonne and elsewhere were concerned — especially when President Donald Trump's initial budget plan in May called for deep cuts to research funded through the Department of Energy. Lawmakers in August, however, authorized increased DOE funding with near-unanimous support.
"It used to be that support of science was a strong area of bipartisan agreement," Foster said. "It's become more partisan these days."
Foster encouraged Friday's audience of local scientists and research employees to use their knowledge and experience for public good by "running for political office at any level.
"It's very important to have scientists on the school board as well as the United States Senate or anywhere in between," Foster said. "It's also important to have the highest possible quality scientists running the scientific enterprise in laboratories."
Foster introduced Pat Dehmer, retired deputy director for science programs for the DOE. She recalled her role in the effort to secure federal funding to build the nanotechnology research centers that opened at Argonne and four other locations in 2007.
Between 2003 and 2005, Dehmer said, she and others seized the opportunity to obtain $310 million in federal funding for the facilities. At one point, she said, state of Illinois officials agreed to contribute $40 million toward construction moments after the DOE's budget was "locked" for the year without nanotechnology funding.
"I said, 'Look, we're going to lose this state money,' and the (DOE) secretary unlocked the budget," Dehmer said.
She said it's remarkable that the research centers opened just nine years after a working group of scientists in 1998 conceived the concept of creating facilities devoted to developing cutting-edge research at the microscopic level.
"That's an unbelievably short amount of time to build five centers," Dehmer said.
Thursday night, I had the opportunity to ask Foster about the Trump administration's commitment to energy research.
"There are a number of reasons to be concerned," he told me. "One of the biggest ones is whether paying for the massive tax cut for the wealthy … will ultimately fall on scientific research. That's a worry specifically for Argonne.
"When you take one and half trillion dollars to give a massive tax break for the wealthy … one of the places the Trump administration has gone to time and time again is proposing cuts for scientific research."
That would be a shame, I think. The work at Argonne and other research facilities — past, present and future — strengthens our national defense and grows our economy by creating new opportunities that test the limits of human imagination.
Hopefully, Congress continues its bipartisan commitment to federal funding for scientific research.