April 25, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 16

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    Argonne at 50: A half-century of partnership, discovery

    (photos) Fifty years ago, Argonne National Laboratory, the nation's first multipurpose national laboratory, began operating in suburban Chicago, born of a University experiment that ushered in the nuclear age.

    For the past 50 years, the University has been Argonne's manager and partner, on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission and, later, the U.S. Department of Energy, and has shared in and contributed to its accomplishments, from technological breakthroughs to scientific achievements in energy, medicine, materials science, physics, chemistry and biology.

    "The funding for and the role of the national laboratories is currently under review, but Argonne is well positioned for a time of change," said Arthur Sussman, General Counsel and Vice President for Administration and Argonne National Laboratory.

    "If Argonne continues its initiative-generating ability, we are poised to move forward into the next century," added Alan Schriesheim, Director of Argonne. "Of course, if the science and technology budget is hit markedly, we will suffer the inevitable consequences of that -- along with all of the other national laboratories as well as universities. But we are a large, multiprogram laboratory, so even if one or two programs are affected, the laboratory will continue its mission. It is in the best interests of this country to continue funding science and technology to provide innovative solutions to problems."

    Argonne has faced -- and weathered -- such challenges before. Confronted with budget cuts when he began his directorship in 1984, Schriesheim undertook a major effort to increase the lab's funding. Under his leadership, Argonne's budget doubled, expanding programs in superconductivity, biology, environmental science and technology, and advanced computing. Argonne's progress was rewarded when it was chosen as the site of the Advanced Photon Source, soon to become the world's most powerful source of X-rays.

    Fittingly, the APS will be dedicated on Wednesday, May 1, during the laboratory's 50th-anniversary year. The year also marks a time of change, as Schriesheim has announced that he will retire as of July 1. A search is being conducted for his successor.

    In the beginning

    What was to become Argonne National Laboratory began as a wartime experiment at the University. The December 1942 experiment conducted by Enrico Fermi and 50 collaborators under the west stands of Stagg Field produced the world's first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. In February 1943, the reactor used in the experiment, known as Chicago Pile 1 (CP1), was dismantled and reassembled as CP2 in the Palos Hills Forest Preserve, 30 miles southwest of Chicago, in an area known as Argonne Forest. The facilities were named Argonne Laboratory after the woods that secluded them.

    On July 1, 1946, the laboratory was formally chartered as Argonne National Laboratory to study peaceful, rather than military, uses of atomic power. The laboratory's mission was to conduct basic research in medicine and biology, physics, reactor analysis, applied mathematics and engineering research and development on nuclear energy. Argonne was a model for the U.S. multipurpose national laboratory system, the first attempt to establish a new kind of scientific research institution -- a government-funded organization that would apply academic research traditions to problem solving in the national interest.

    Robert Sachs, Professor Emeritus in Physics and Director of Argonne from 1973 to 1979, said, "The nuclear chain reaction was remarkable in that it jumped from pure basic research into a weapon in only three years. That convinced the public and Congress that basic research was critical to the development of technology. So basic research was built into the mission of the Atomic Energy Commission, and thus the laboratory, right from the beginning."

    In December 1947, the laboratory's role was broadened, at the request of the Atomic Energy Commission, to include development of reactors for the nation's nuclear-energy program. In August 1948, a much larger site six miles from Argonne Forest became the laboratory's new home. The following year, the National Reactor Testing Station, a portion of which is now ArgonneWest, was established in Idaho.

    Making history

    Over the years, many historically significant experiments have been conducted by Argonne scientists. The first electricity generated by atomic energy lit a string of four light bulbs in December 1951 at a reactor built at the testing station in Idaho. The reactor, originally dubbed CP-4, was known as the Experimental Breeder Reactor-1. EBR-1 -- which was the first prototype of a reactor intended, eventually, to generate, or "breed," more nuclear fuel than it consumed -- achieved many benchmarks during its years of operation and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

    By the mid-1950s, nuclear energy was becoming commercially viable, thanks in large part to the research conducted by Argonne. In the first successful experiment of its kind, the entire town of Arco, Idaho, was lit in 1955 by a boiling-water reactor called BORAX-3. The next generation of this reactor, the Experimental Boiling Water Reactor, was the forerunner of many commercial nuclear-energy plants. One of these is the Commonwealth Edison facility at Dresden, Ill., which became the first privately operated nuclear-energy plant in 1960.

    At the same time, there was no facility for high-energy physics in the Midwest, although accelerators existed on both coasts -- at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator. That soon changed, however, as remarkable discoveries in the field of particle physics -- and the Cold War -- stimulated further development of high-energy physics. As Sachs tells the tale, the Russians quietly built the world's most powerful accelerator in the Ural Mountains, to the great surprise of American scientists.

    "Physicist Luis Alvarez visited and came back raving," Sachs said. "It was a copy of the Bevatron accelerator at Berkeley, but at about 4 billion electron volts higher energy."

    The U.S. government was eager to build a more powerful accelerator than the Russians, using the Argonne site to construct an even larger copy of the Berkeley accelerator, with 12 billion electron volts in energy. The scientists rebelled, said Sachs, arguing that a new accelerator should be of an even better design.

    In the end, plans were authorized in 1957 to build the Zero Gradient Synchrotron, crafted of a revolutionary design, at Argonne, with an opening date of 1963. The ZGS was designed and constructed under the direction of Albert Crewe, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and Director of Argonne from 1961 to 1967, and Roger Hildebrand, the Samuel K. Allison Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics. The ZGS was the beginning of a new era at Argonne, changing the facility from the workhorse of the Atomic Energy Commission into a user-oriented laboratory accessible to all sectors of the research community.

    Looking ahead

    Despite their long history together, Argonne and the University can forge an even deeper relationship, said David Schramm, Vice President for Research. "We're really trying to strengthen that relationship now," Schramm said. "National laboratories have excellent people and tremendous infrastructures, and we have the students and the freedom to pursue ideas that whet our intellectual curiosity. That combination makes for a tremendous partnership."

    While Argonne's initial mandate to develop safe, effective nuclear power has been superseded, work at the lab continues to be at the forefront of science and technology. Current projects include the development of efficient electric cars, as well as the advancement of three-dimensional imaging science, high-speed computing, superconductivity, materials science, hazardous-waste cleanup and the safe retirement of nuclear reactors. Through the APS, important contributions will soon be made in the fields of structural biology, chemical physics and geophysics.

    A new intellectual synergy is developing, too, between the University and Argonne National Laboratory, with help from an innovative collaborative grant program. Scientists in nine joint projects -- the first to be funded through the Argonne National Laboratory/University of Chicago Collaborative Grants Program -- are exploring problems ranging from the origin of matter formed in stars to photosynthesis and artificial intelligence.

    Plans are also being developed for a new joint Research Center for Computational Science. Among the problems the center may explore are the computer-aided identification of lesions in mammograms, the interpretation of nuclear magnetic resonance data for protein structure, the identification of astrophysical radiation sources and the investigation of vortices in superconductors.

    "As Argonne enters the second half of its first century, the ties between Argonne and Chicago are growing ever stronger," Schramm said. "By working together we can do things that neither of us can do alone. The list of accomplishments in the past 50 years by Argonne and the University is already incredibly impressive. We have much to look forward to in the next half-century."

    -- Diana Steele