Peter Littlewood, Director, Argonne National LaboratoryOn April 1, 2014, Peter Littlewood took the helm at Argonne National Laboratory, being selected to serve as the national lab’s 13th director. Littlewood, a Professor of Physics at the Univ. of Chicago and the previous Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences and Engineering at Argonne, brings a wealth of experience, knowledge and a plethora of new ideas to the table. Michelle Taylor, Editor of Laboratory Equipment, spoke to Littlewood about his recent appointment. 

MT: As Associate Director, you pioneered a cross-disciplinary approach to energy science. Why do you feel this collaborative approach is the right way to lead?

PL: In the last several years, Argonne and the U.S. Department of Energy have put forth great effort to encourage collaboration across scientific disciplines and between basic and applied scientists and engineers because this is where innovation based on a solid foundation of scientific research is born. We are a laboratory that thrives around big challenges that are not going to be solved by iterative changes. Big societal goals in energy can especially be used to drive great fundamental science.

An outstanding example is the advanced battery research at Argonne and the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), which Argonne leads. Basic researchers provide a fundamental understanding of how a material works or doesn’t; this research typically involves chemists, materials scientists, computer modeling and others. As our basic understanding of the material grows, applied scientists assess its promise for battery applications. When a material shows high promise, applied scientists use the newly acquired basic knowledge about the materials to design battery chemistries for specific applications, such as all-electric cars or electrical grid storage. Engineers then devise a method to quickly scale up production of the new material so it can be tested on a larger scale to assess its performance and commercial viability. We recognize that the process of development is not a linear progression from fundamental to applied; we are building prototypes very early, and using computer modeling of complete battery systems to decide key areas on which to focus.

MT: What kinds of innovation should we expect to see from JCESR in the near future? 

PL: In its first year, JCESR successfully introduced a new paradigm for battery R&D that combines discovery science, battery design and research prototyping in a single highly collaborative and interactive organization. 

Moving forward, JCESR is working on the next generation of storage beyond lithium ion; that is JCESR’s target. JCESR has already achieved performance from a lithium-sulfur battery cathode that is better than what is commercially available, and a growing number of organizations continue to join JCESR’s affiliate program to help accelerate development of advanced battery technologies.

MT: Can you talk a little about the Advanced Photon Source (APS) upgrade project and what it means for the U.S. in synchrotron science? 

PL: The APS has the once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead the U.S. into a new frontier of X-ray science by incorporating a newly matured accelerator technology called a multi-bend achromat (MBA) lattice into its proposed upgrade plans. The MBA lattice will allow us to be a world-leading source of hard X-rays by creating the optimum high-brightness, high-energy storage ring X-ray source, opening up research avenues once thought out of reach.

By adding this emerging technology to the APS upgrade, Argonne will provide scientists with X-rays at energies that can penetrate real materials and chemistries under real-world environmental conditions, with brightness and coherent flux more than two orders of magnitude better than today’s synchrotrons. This will revolutionize X-ray imaging, scattering and spectroscopy techniques and enable breakthroughs in nanoscale science. 

MT: Federal labs have seen budget reductions in the past few years. How do you anticipate growing research amidst these cuts? 

PL: Everyone is feeling the budget pinch, and Argonne is no exception. We are all learning how to work smarter with fewer resources by focusing even more on research and innovations that are important to the nation and the world. We’re also broadening our partnerships with other laboratories, universities and industry to get the best out of the research that we conduct. These steps will allow us to continue growing the exciting research we do.

MT: What does its partnership with the Univ. of Chicago mean to Argonne?

PL: Argonne is managed by the Univ. of Chicago for the U.S. Department of Energy. Recently, Argonne and UChicago have created a number of new partnerships. 

Specifically, we have collaborated on the establishment of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. The IME is assembling a team of world-class researchers across a broad range of scientific and engineering disciplines. The goal is to translate discoveries in basic physics, chemistry and biology into new tools to address important societal problems and create a research and teaching environment to enhance and transmit these capabilities to the next generation.

More recently, Argonne and the university have worked together to create the Chicago Innovation Exchange, which is becoming an important hub for multidisciplinary collaborations that support new business start-up activities. CIE is just one example of how the university and Argonne support the development of a growing and robust innovation ecosystem in Chicago and the Midwest.

These partnerships have benefitted from an increased number of joint appointments for university faculty and Argonne staff. These appointments not only strengthen our joint projects, they also fortify both institutions by increasing the exchange of ideas among some of the world’s brightest people.

MT: What challenges would you would like to solve during your tenure as director? 

PL: We need much more diversity in the nation’s scientific ranks. Science is a team sport, and diversity improves your team’s success because you can apply a greater range of skills, experiences, backgrounds and points of view to solving the nation’s most important scientific and engineering challenges.  

Women and people of color aren’t represented in the scientific community at anywhere near their proportion in the nation’s workforce. Women, for example, make up nearly half the national workforce but only about a quarter of the nation’s STEM workforce.

This is a huge challenge that is likely to take several years—perhaps longer than my tenure here as director. But I want Argonne to become a paragon of diversity in scientific staffing and management. 

MT: What are your goals for Argonne over the next five years?

PL: In addition to building a more diverse staff, we need to continue to broaden our engagement with industry. Industry provides us with the best barometer of what advanced technologies the marketplace is likely to need in the short- and mid-term. At Argonne, we have pretty good ideas about what innovations can benefit society and the economy, but we need industrial involvement to guide the process of transforming our innovations into marketable products.