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Nerdette

Science Experiments To Knowhere: A Field Trip To Argonne National Lab

Argonne National Laboratory is a massive research facility outside of Chicago that’s run by the U.S. Department of Energy. And this week, Nerdette hosts Tricia Bobeda and Greta Johnsen take you behind the curtain to learn about some of the innovative things happening there. 

(Yes, Argonne does share many similarities with the mysterious lab harboring “the Upside Down” in the Netflix series Stranger Things. And no, Tricia and Greta did not get to visit the Upside Down.)

Solving big problems with big computers

Katherine Riley. (Photo courtesy of Argonne)

Katherine Riley is the director of science at Argonne’s Leadership Computing Facility. That means she runs the team of scientists who work with MIRA, one of the 100 fastest supercomputers in the world. Argonne says MIRA can do in one day what an average personal computer can accomplish in 20 years. 

Riley said MIRA works on about 35 projects a year, and her team tries to pick the projects that could have the biggest possible impact — finding the molecular cause of Parkinson’s disease, for example, or figuring out how to make windows that double as solar panels. 

Riley said with the help of supercomputers like MIRA, she’s optimistic we’ll be able to cure some of the world’s most pervasive diseases in her lifetime. 

“The idea that we can start mining all of this information we have about different drugs and different materials — literally how we build those drugs, like their properties, and target that really effectively towards treating disease — [that’s] something we’re very close to,” Riley said. 

“This is something that is on our computers today,” Riley continued. “We’re advancing that today. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that suddenly disease is gone. But this idea of these personalized treatments and this very rapid ability to deliver personalized treatment is really exciting.”

Using data to build better cities

Rajesh Sankaran. (Photo courtesy of Argonne)

Many of the world’s largest cities were built hundreds of years ago, which means they’re not necessarily designed for 21st-century residents. That’s a problem that Rajesh Sankaran, a computer scientist at Argonne, is trying to solve. 

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes building the cities we’ve built until now,” Sankaran said, citing long commutes, poor waste management, and massive factory corridors.

So Sankaran and his team are building hundreds of nodes and placing them on light poles around the city of Chicago. The idea, he said, is to make “a FitBit for the city.” Those nodes will collect a data about area flooding, air quality, and how people move through the city, which could help urban designers make better choices for residents. 

“I think one thing this will transform is to be able to build more people-friendly cities in future,” Sankaran said.

And the project is gaining momentum — while Chicago was one of the first cities to adopt the tech, Sanrakan said more than 10 other cities will have their own sensors by the end of 2018. 

Building the next generation of superbattery

Lei Cheng. (Photo courtesy of Argonne)

Imagine if you had to put eight AAA batteries into your iPhone every six hours. That, thankfully, isn't the case thanks to the rechargeable lithium ion battery.

The problem with lithium, though, is that it’s expensive, and — as we all well know — it can only hold a charge for so long. 

Lei Cheng works at Argonne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. She’s on a quest to figure out which elements could make the next revolutionary battery.

So what might that future battery be made of? How about magnesium?

“It’s cheap and earth-abundant,” Cheng said. “It carries twice as much charge as a lithium battery, potentially giving you a very high energy density.”

Cheng said both magnesium and sulfur could be the elements of the next superbattery, but there are lots of other elements to explore, too. In any case, she’s got Argonne’s supercomputers working on the problem.

Asking questions that might never get answered

Matt Dietrich. (Photo courtesy of Argonne)

Matt Dietrich is an experimental physicist at Argonne. His ultimate goal is to better humanity’s understanding of fundamental physics.

Dietrich is working on a problem that gets very complicated very quickly. It involves shooting lasers at rare isotopes to try to disprove part of the Standard Model, which is essentially a particle physics owners’ manual.

The thing is ... the odds that he’ll find what he’s looking for are not great.

“You work on stuff like this, and it’s really a Hail Mary because you never know if you’re going to find something,” Dietrich said.

“And if you do find something … well, will it ever have any practical application? You just kind of satisfy yourself with being excited about the questions and about the search, I think.”

Dietrich said he’s OK with the idea that he might spend his entire career searching for something that won’t be found for another generation or that might not exist at all. 

Because that’s the thing about science — sometimes a discovery might have no obvious application, but it could end up being the cornerstone of daily life in the future. 

“When Einstein started tinkering around with general relativity, he didn’t think that would ever have any practical application whatsoever,” Dietrich said. “But now it’s an essential part of the GPS system. It’s hard to even guess on what timeframe some of these things could eventually become useful.”

But for Dietrich, that’s all part of the process. 

“To me, science is a thing that we have inherited and eventually we will pass on,” he said. 

“Somebody gave us this precious thing, this beautiful thing, and eventually we will give it to people to follow us.”

Click the “play” button to listen to the podcast, which was produced by Justin Bull.

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