The Argonne National Laboratory

Xochitl Longstaff
March 26, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: National Laboratories in the United States. [1] (Courtesy of the DOE)

Founded during the 1940's off the heals of the Manhattan Project and the development of nuclear energy, the Argonne National Laboratory is currently one of the Department of Energy's 17 national laboratories depicted in Fig. 1 tasked with leading the national in the development of technology, science and techniques for investigating the natural world. [1]

The main facility, pictured in Fig. 2, includes 1,517 acres, 157 buildings, 3297 full time employees and 250 undergraduate students. [1]

The Argonne National Laboratory evolved from the University of Chicago's wartime metallurgical laboratory in Du Page County and thus was first contracted by the University of Chicago in 1942. [2] During its first decades the laboratory focused on atomic energy research and contributed to the building of 28 testing reactors in Illinois and Idaho which, although were all shut down before 2000, served as the basis for modern reactors including pressurized water reactors, graphite-moderated reactors and boiling water reactors. [3]


Argonne saw early successes with projects like the their Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) which was active from 1951 until 1964 and proved the feasibility of electricity production by nuclear fuel breeding, and the Argonne Tandem Linear Accelerator which studied the nucleus and elementary particles starting in the 1980's. [1] Their work with these instruments and others probed questions on the effects of radiation, the nuclear properties of isotopes, coolant systems and more. This work was recognized both in academia and by the general public and several researchers associated with the laboratory won Nobel prizes for their discoveries such as Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for her work on the structure of the nucleus and Alexei A. Abrikosov in 2003 for work on condensed-matter physics and superconductivity. [2]

University Partnerships

Fig. 2: Argonne National Laboratory facilities. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The laboratory has maintained a strong connection to university research and in 1966 the Argonne University Association was formed through which the lab became contracted by a rotating consortium of many different American universities. [2] As of 2016, the laboratory has 16 ongoing contracts with other institutions including Stanford SLAC, Ames Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), among others. [1] Balancing the goals and priorities of research universities and national interests has proved a point of challenge and contention over the years in the multidisciplinary laboratory. For example, while the first directors of the Argonne lab came from academia, later replacements came from industry. This changed the direction of the laboratory toward more application based research and less basic science as well as a more cut-throat atmosphere to work in which was discouraging for some of the basic science researchers at the institution. [2]

Current Mission

Today as a multidisciplinary science and engineering center the laboratory has modeling, theoretical and experimental projects in many different spaces including

Specific projects include developing algorithms for parallel computers, researching the human genome, and experimental particle physics. A large part of their work includes helping to build facilities for other groups such as the Mira supercomputer, the giant X-ray synchrotron Advanced Photon source and Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System. [1]

Conflicts of Interest Allegations

The Argonne National Laboratory has had some problems with conflicts of interest allegations and ethical practices. In 2009 for example, Mark Steven Kirk, a politician from Illinois, accused the laboratory of problems with conflicts of interest, inadequate competition and other inappropriate activities specifically associated with the PROTECT project. PROTECT was a project that focused on technology to defend against gas attacks as it was developed in response to the 1995 attacks in Tokyo which used sarin gas. After a government investigation, it was concluded that the transfer of the technology to the private sector by the Argonne National Laboratory as well as contractual promises and other questionable activity through the project did count as conflicts of interest that gave certain individuals unfair business advantages. [4]

© Xochitl Longstaff. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Annual Report on the State of the DOE National Laboratories," U.S. Department of Energy, January 2017.

[2] A. Mozley, "Change in Argonne National Laboratory: A Case Study," Science 174, 30 (1971).

[3] R. Gaertner, "Nuclear Power in the United States," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[4] "Allegations of Conflict of Interest Regarding Licensing of PROTECT by Argonne National Laboratory," U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/IG-0819, August 2009.