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A Look Inside the Labs

August 23, 2010 - 3:53pm


Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab – two of the Department’s national laboratories that are renowned for their cutting-edge research. There I obtained a firsthand look at some of the most innovative projects in the world of science and technology. The origins of these labs go back to the University of Chicago and the ground-breaking work of Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi in the Manhattan Project, including the successful production of the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. My visit persuaded me that we can expect more transformational breakthroughs from these labs in the years to come.

At Argonne I toured the Energy Storage and Transportation Research Facilities, where scientists are conducting important research in advanced batteries and energy storage systems. In fact, Argonne’s capabilities are so well-respected in this area that the finalists for the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition for the best 100-Miles-per-Gallon Energy Equivalent production-capable cars have been sent to Argonne for testing (I managed to shoehorn myself into one of the finalist vehicles). Argonne’s research has enormous potential for the Nation – by developing more efficient vehicles and better batteries for electric vehicles, we can cut our dependence on oil and make the United States a leader in deploying these technologies.

Argonne brings the same caliber of expertise and dedication across its multidisciplinary portfolio of projects. From the breakthrough research performed at the Advanced Photon Source, to the Center for Nanoscale Materials, to the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, the lab is leading the way in science and engineering. We also discussed Argonne’s important work on the nuclear fuel cycle and in the area of national security.

The next day I drove to Batavia to visit Fermilab – a world leader in high-energy physics. Fermilab’s groundbreaking research is helping to answer humankind’s fundamental questions about the nature and origin of the universe.

At Fermilab, I toured the NuMI (Neutrinos at the Main Injector) Tunnel, home to the highest-intensity neutrino beam in the world. Neutrinos are among the most elusive subatomic particles originating from the sun, supernovae and other celestial objects (Fermilab scientists have been the first to identify many, including the up and down quark and the tau neutrino). Experiments at Fermilab explore the interaction of neutrinos with matter and the transformation of one type of neutrino into another. This work at the frontier of science will help us understand the role neutrinos played in the evolution of the universe. I was also impressed by the Tevatron proton-antiproton collider, the second-highest energy accelerator in the world, which has recently narrowed the search field for the even-more elusive Higgs boson.

One thing impressed me even more than these cutting-edge scientific facilities: the people who design, build and operate them. As we say at Department of Energy, our people are our greatest asset, and this is clearly the case at Argonne and Fermilab. The passion, the brilliance and the drive of the scientists, engineers and technicians who comprise the Argonne and Fermilab families were impressive. Their thirst for knowledge of the unknown and their keen intellectual curiosity were palpable. I particularly enjoyed an informal lunch with students and younger scientists, who shared with me their hopes about the future, as well as their concerns. That new blood will drive our country forward and help us tackle our greatest energy and scientific challenges. I’m proud of what Argonne and Fermilab have accomplished so far and look forward to seeing their continued contributions in the years to come. I know our country – and our world – will be the better for it.

For more information, or to schedule your own tour, visit the Argonne or Fermilab websites.

Daniel Poneman is the Deputy Secretary of Energy.