'A small gift to the planet': U.S. Energy Secretary discusses the future of energy at Argonne
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and local congressmen visited Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont Monday to mark the completion of a new facility that will allow a closer look at clean energy sources such as electric vehicle batteries and nuclear energy materials.
"I'm so honored to be here and honored to be here representing an administration that very much believes in science," Granholm said during her visit.
The new building is part of an $815 million upgrade of the laboratory's massive X-ray light source, called the Advanced Photon Source, which uses energy stored in a ring large enough to fit around Wrigley Field to act as a giant microscope.
It's a user-operated facility, meaning that more than 5,000 scientists from around the globe use the X-rays each year to peer inside materials at the molecular and atomic levels. In one example, scientists use the technology to look at viruses -- including COVID-19 -- to understand their molecular structure and develop vaccines.
"The fact that 5,000 scientists come here to try and solve those problems -- it's a gift to Illinois, it's a gift to America, it's a small gift to the planet," Granholm said.
Once completed, the upgrade will result in beams that are 500 times brighter than the current machine, allowing scientists to look even closer at materials and processes. The new structure celebrated Monday will house two new X-ray beam lines, as well as an advanced activated-materials laboratory.
"Both beam lines will help us maintain America's scientific leadership in many fields of research, and help solve some of the world's most pressing scientific challenges," Argonne Director Paul Kearns said. "The activated-materials laboratory will greatly improve our ability to understand how radiation affects the structure of materials, such as materials to enhance the performance of the next generation of nuclear power plants."
While the X-rays are used to look at everything from infrastructure materials to new pharmaceuticals to mouse brains, one major emphasis in the climate world is on creating batteries that last longer, charge faster and hold more energy.
Granholm added Monday that tools like the Advanced Photon Source are key to building ways to "repair our planet," such as creating better batteries for electric vehicles, identifying more durable and efficient materials for solar panels and finding storage capability that can make solar energy more easily managed.
"At the Department of Energy, we are really obsessed with how we get to net zero by 2050, and how we get to 100% clean electricity by 2035," Granholm said. "All you have to do is open newspapers today and see thousands of people across the planet dying because of these extreme weather events that we continue to see. They are accelerating and they are getting more intense. If we don't accelerate ourselves -- the mission of discovering the ways to get to net zero and 100% clean electricity -- then we are going to fry out."
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Naperville Democrat who represents Illinois' 11th district, visited Argonne Monday along with U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago. Foster, who serves on the Committee on Science, Space and Technology and is the only Ph.D. physicist in Congress, said long term, fundamental research being done at Argonne will have lasting benefits down the line.
"The most important thing that's done at labs like here is long-term research that makes things possible not five years from now, but 20 years from now," he said.
Foster added that research done at Argonne to continuously test samples from nuclear reactors is particularly important in Illinois, where we rely on nuclear energy for the majority of our electricity.
"When we're trying to extend the life of these nuclear plants that we depend on, one of the key issues is the materials," Foster said. "That capacity to really look at the details of what it means to be safe is crucial to the future of nuclear."
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see https://www.reportforamerica.org/newsrooms/daily-herald-4/