Argonne National Laboratory as an Illinois Gem

July 28, 2010

The United States’ Government has twenty national laboratories, each with a unique mission.   Several of the more familiar ones are NASA, Washington D.C., responsible for the nation’s civilian space program; National Institutes of Health, Bethesda Maryland, one of the world’s foremost medical research centers; the National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, supports research and education in all non-medical fields of science and engineering; Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM, deals with national security and technology issues; and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN, where basic research is done in nuclear and atomic physics.  Two of the laboratories which make up the twenty Federal Laboratory Consortium are located right here in Illinois:   Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. 

As a member of the Chicago Chapter of the American Nuclear Society, I was able to tour Argonne National Laboratory on Saturday, July 24, along with other Chicago Chapter members and members of  the Southwest Michigan Chapter.  I took as my guest Beverly Cooper of Highland Park, producer of  “Cooper’s Corner”, a live, hour-long Wednesday night Comcast TV program, which is then replayed during the week that follows on local community TV stations throughout Lake County, Illinois.  Communities that replay Cooper’s Cooper include those in the Channel 35 area from Skokie to Schaumberg; those receiving Waukegan’s Channel 17 west to Mundelein and north to Zion; and Channel 19 covering Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Highland Park, and Deerfield.

The tour was arranged by Natalie Zaczek, ANS Chicago Chapter Vice-Chair and a Mechanical Design Engineer at Exelon’s Dresden Generating Station, a nuclear power plant.  Upon reaching the Argonne Information Center/Visitor Reception Center, we were issued plastic Security Passes  for the day, which had to remain clipped to our clothing throughout the tour.  All 40 individuals on the Saturday, July 24 tour were U.S. citizens, so we only had to submit our names prior to the tour. As the final step before boarding the bus to begin our tour, all forty of us had to show a picture ID.  Long pants and closed-toe shoes were required attire.

Here are some basic facts about Argonne National Laboratory.  Argonne is one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest research centers.  It was also the nation’s first national laboratory, chartered in 1946.  It occupies 1,500 wooded acres in southeast DuPage County about 25 miles southwest of downtown Chicago.  The Argonne campus consists of 100 buildings.  It even has its own hotel for visitors.   The University of Chicago oversees laboratory operations for the U.S. Department of Energy,  Argonne’s annual operating budget of about $650 million supports more than 200 research projects. There are 3,200 full-time employees of whom 1,250 are scientists and engineers.  The number often swells to six or seven thousand with visitors doing research projects.  Argonne is also home to a Nuclear Response Team which can quickly be sent anywhere in the U.S. to deal with a radiation or nuclear accident or malfunction   

Argonne designs, builds and operates facilities for scientific research.  Many of these facilities are unique in the world, and the research done in them increases our understanding of the universe and its building blocks.  Like those at other government labs, the facilities at Argonne are too expensive and specialized for private industry or educational institutions to build and operate. Among these are the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility, the Electron Microscopy Center, and the Structural Biology Center.  An important recent addition is Argonne’s two-year old Center for Nanoscale Materials. 

Argonne’s scientific-user research facilities are offered for free, with the stipulation that  the research done must be published.  Hundreds of scientists and engineers with varied backgrounds from academia, industry, other national laboratories — and often scientists from other nations —  take advantage of Argonne’s facilities to develop innovative solutions to research projects that few industry or university labs would have the wherewithall to acquire.

Tour highlights included the Advanced Photon Source, the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS), and the Nuclear Engineering exhibit.  Our very capable tour escorts were Mr. Dave Hooper and Mr. Dan West.  Both entertained questions during the tour.  Their answers provided even more insights into the operation of Argonne Laboratory, when the questions took them beyond their prepared tour remarks.  Much of the research related to climate and green energy sources is being done at the national laboratories, and Argonne is no exception.  An Argonne Laboratory publication, “Argonne’s Green Shoots,”  describes Argonne’s green energy projects.  Projects include a search for untapped sources of water that may help create transformational energy solutions, a newly expanded program that will allow Argonne’s climatologists to get a more nuanced picture of the mechanisms that underlie climate change, and research into controlling the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere through knowledge of how algae naturally sequesters organic phosphorous.

Not included on our handout which listed tour highlights was Argonne’s Transportation Facility, where we were shown a recycling process for end of life cars where 90% of a vehicle ends up going to vendors instead of to landfill.  The 10% left is sand, gravel, rust, etc.  The machine developed at Argonne crunches and grinds automobile materials, after which residue is further separated through the following processes:  1) Mechanical/Eddy magnetism and 2) submersion in liquids that vary in density. The “Cash for Clunkers” Program was a perfect fit for Argonne’s crunching and shredding machine.   The residue is sold to vendors, where car parts are made from the recycled material, which are often superior to those made with the original material. 

Sears is interested in Argonne’s Auto Recycling Plant following its rebate program involving old appliances.  Other companies expressing interest in the Argonne’s recycling plant are furniture companies and those dealing with old computers.

Another research program at the Transportation Facility is the testing and rating of new car designs that use alternate sources for power such as electric, diesel, hydrogen, fuel cells, as well as combustion engines. Research into improved efficiency of coal-fired plants is also conducted at this facility. 

The Nuclear Engineering Exhibit most interested me, as I continue to spend time and effort in advocating for the restarting of the now-shuttered 2,100 megawatt Dual Zion Nuclear Plant, instead of wasting its massive source of energy forever through decommissioning.  The Nuclear Exhibit contains six major sections and describes Argonne’s historic role in the development of nuclear power.  Every reactor type around the world that has successfully produced electrical energy was either invented or developed at Argonne.  Argonne, however, is no longer involved in nuclear development.

Charts mounted along the hallway told of 104 operating nuclear plants in the U.S. which provide 20% of our energy.  One chart which I took exception to, especially the climate change reference, described “nuclear energy as the only large-scale electrical generating technology that does not emit greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.”  Continuing on:  “Through the use of nuclear energy, the U.S. has avoided over three billion tons of air emissions since 1970.”  A nuclear consultant on the tour informed me that a new nuclear plant would cost $7 billion to build and that it would typically last for 60 years with license extensions, which are almost always granted.

I was able to view the mock up of the Westinghouse AP600 standardized reactor design supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and Industry, and which has extensive international support and usage.  This same pressurized water reactor is still being used in all six of the operating nuclear plants here in Illinois owned by Exelon Corporation — Byron, Quad Cities, Dresden, LaSalle, Clinton, and Braidwood.  The same Westinghouse AP600 pressurized water reactors were in use at the dual Zion Nuclear Facility when it was prematurely shuttered in 1998. 

Although the Westinghouse AP600 design has a good safety record and is used world-wide, it was interesting to see another mock up in the Nuclear Exhibit of the new and improved AP1000 Westinghouse reactor design.  

Most amazing was Argonne’s Advance Photon Source center. This premier research facility provides the brightest x-ray beams in the Western Hemisphere to more than 5,000 scientists from across the United States and around the world.   One medical research program being conducted has the goal of a treatment process that will kill cancer cells without harming surrounding tissue.  

Engineers on the tour were especially interested in seeing the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS), the world’s first superconducting ion accelerator ever build.  My lack of scientific training and knowledge restricted my understanding of all that the ATLAS can accomplish. Tour Highlights information described ATLAS as “capable of accelerating ions of all natural elements from hydrogen to uranium for research into the properties of the nucleus, the core of matter, and the fuel of stars.”

It is likely that Beverly Cooper and I were the only members of the forty-member tour group not connected with the nuclear industry.  Even so the Argonne tour was not above our understanding.  One handout especially caught our attention because of its musical theme.  It was titled,  “A Lead to the Root Cause of Beethoven’s Demise,”   The handout told how the Argonne’s APS played an important role in a project to solve the mystery of what caused composer Ludwig van Beethoven to suffer years of chronic illness and to die at age 57.  A  chemical and x-ray analysis of a clipping of Beethoven’s hair taken the day after he died by a student, strongly suggested that Beethoven had plumbism or lead poisoning, which could explain his  bad digestion, chronic abdominal pain, irritability, and depression.  The average value for lead concentration for Beethoven’s hair was 60 parts per million; the average human hair contains less than 1 ppm.  Illinoisans can take pride in Argonne Laboratory.   It is on the cutting edge of seeking solutions to pressing national problems in basic science and in applied science and engineering.   Argonne has a national and worldwide reputation as its researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems. 

It would be amiss to not mention another Illinois research gem, the Enrico Fermi Accelerator Laboratory, located near Batavia, IL, which specializes in high energy particles.   Noted in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, July 26, is that the longtime professor of physics and the director of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago, Simon Swordy, died of lymphoma on Monday, July 19, at the University of Chicago Medical Center. 


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