Argonne National Lab - A National R&D Treasure

By Stew Magnuson
The Mira supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory

Photo: Stew Magnuson

One would think that Keith S. Bradley, director of national security programs at Argonne National Laboratory, had an easy job.

All he has to do is convince the U.S. military, Department of Homeland Security and their contractors to come use the lab’s facilities, which are often available free of charge.

“The message I’m trying to deliver to the outside world is that we do some pretty cool things in national security here at Argonne National Laboratory that the broader community doesn’t know about,” he said in an interview at the lab.

The Department of Energy lab is located in a picturesque forest, much like its namesake in France. It is less than an hour’s drive from Chicago’s two main airports and boasts facilities and equipment that can’t be found anywhere else in the United States.

Its contributions to national security are notable. First and foremost is its role in the Manhattan Project. After Enrico Fermi created the first sustained man-made nuclear reaction in the heart of the University of Chicago’s campus in 1942, the decision was wisely made to move such experiments out of the highly populated area and to Argonne’s present-day site. The lab would go on to be the third node of what would become the internet. One of its reactors was installed in the first nuclear-powered sub.

The university and the nearby national labs recently hosted National Defense and a handful of other journalists at its Science of Innovation Summit. The goal was to spread the word about the technological prowess found in the Chicago area. It’s considerable but rarely mentioned as one of the nation’s innovation hubs.

Today, the University of Chicago operates Argonne on behalf of the Department of Energy. It is part of a hub that includes the nearby Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where scientists are working to understand the very fabric of the universe. While that is basic research and seemingly of little concern to the defense world, that is not entirely correct. Researchers there are using what they learn about protons, electrons, atoms and neutrinos and applying it to quantum computing and quantum communications. These fields are in their infancy, but they are potential game-changers for national security.

Another hot topic is hypersonics.

The lab wants to contribute to the government-wide effort to catch up with China and Russia in the field, which has been named a top research-and-development priority by Pentagon officials.

Argonne has a tool like no other in the 80-acre Advanced Photon Source, which gives scientists the brightest X-ray beams available in the United States. 

It is the only machine that could peer into a hypersonic engine as it fires and let researchers know precisely what is going on inside.

“We have some pretty unique capabilities here — not only with our X-ray light source — but also in surface science and other types of modeling and simulation of the materials that are important to hypersonic flight,” Bradley said.

The lab currently has the 15th fastest supercomputer in the world on site, which will soon be replaced with a new one that will — at least for a time — be ranked No. 1. The Argonne supercomputers aren’t available for classified work, but they are open for national security applications in the nonclassified realm. But that will change, Bradley explained. “We’re in the process of creating the capability to be able to do what I would call ‘sensitive unclassified’ supercomputing. And then eventually classified supercomputing.”

An additional problem for the military is advanced battery technologies, which happens to be another Argonne specialty. Bradley believes the Defense Department is skating along, wishing that the commercial world will solve all its battery problems. But it probably won’t, he said. The lab can help.

“I’m hoping that over time the military will start to realize that to really accelerate battery innovation for their needs, they’re going to have to invest in it,” he said.
Defense contractors are welcome, Bradley said.

They can “gain access to very, very expensive facilities that are one of a kind in the world to accelerate innovation. The Advanced Photon Source is critical to solving some of the problems facing national security, he said. “It’s not the kind of thing that a defense contractor is going to spend $2 billion building if there’s one sitting at a government laboratory somewhere.”

And try booking time at one of the Defense Department’s weapons labs, he said. They aren’t so welcoming to outsiders, he asserted.

Interest on the part of defense contractors is growing, he said.

“We’re becoming broadly known for our unique capabilities. We’re literally in our infancy at bringing in work to solve those problems, but we’ve gone from pretty much invisible to suddenly a community-level and enterprise-level understanding of what types of problems can be solved” here, he said.

With limited resources, Bradley said he can only do so much to spread the word about Argonne. But he continues to engage with the military, intelligence community, DHS and their contractors.

“While we’ve always been proud of what we’ve done for national security, we’ve never been compared to some of the other laboratories. We haven’t been as vocal about our contribution. So it’s one of these classic out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenarios where if you’re not out telling people what you do, people don’t know that you exist,” Bradley said.

Topics: Research and Development

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