In quick succession, the laboratory designed and built multiple reactors, including the Experimental Breeder Reactor I, 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.
Meanwhile, the laboratory was also helping to design the reactor for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, which steamed all the way beneath the polar ice cap.
Argonne’s campus located in Idaho (today its own lab, called Idaho National Laboratory) also produced R&D for advanced kinds of nuclear reactors. For example, in 1982, they tested 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.
Alongside nuclear technology, the concentration of top scientists at Argonne meant the laboratory quickly became a pioneering hub for fundamental research in physics, chemistry and other fields.
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, scientists discovered the hydrated electron, which is a free electron in a solution and the smallest possible anion.
That same year, Argonne and UChicago 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.
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, the first use of this method for studying the particle.
Argonne researchers also 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.
The lab 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 cathode later found its way into electric vehicles produced by General Motors.
A hub for discovery
Part of Argonne’s success has always been as a home for scientific facilities too large and complex for individual universities. These serve as a destination for scientists around the world; every year, more than 6,000 researchers visit these facilities to conduct groundbreaking studies in nearly every field of science and engineering.
The Advanced Photon Source, a major X-ray facility, was completed in 1995 to produce the brightest X-rays in the world. The Advanced Photon Source has paved the way for research that led to several Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, and it still runs 24 hours a day, to study everything from batteries to beetles.
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