CHICAGO – With supercomputers and one of the brightest X-ray sources in the Western Hemisphere, Argonne National Laboratory has research and development tools that aren't available at the typical company.
That equipment – plus the brainpower of about 1,600 scientists and engineers – is part of what drives dozens of companies to work with the federal lab each year, said Suresh Sunderrajan, who leads a 25-person team as director of Argonne's technology commercialization and partnerships division.
For the lab, located in suburban Chicago, the collaborations are a way to show off some of its taxpayer-funded work. For the companies, which have included AbbVie and Caterpillar, the work with Argonne could be the linchpin in developing a new drug or improving an earth-moving engine.
The number of private industry partners with active projects at Argonne has been increasing; it was up to 111 in fiscal year 2016 from 38 four years prior.
The Trump administration, however, in its fiscal year 2018 budget plan proposed cutting the Department of Energy's funding by 5.6 percent, to $28 billion, including a $900 million cut for the Office of Science, which provides the majority of Argonne's funding. Congressional Democrats from Illinois have pressed for information about the number of jobs at Argonne that could be cut.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What's the goal for companies that work with Argonne?
A: The more you understand the science behind what you do, the more you know what knob to turn. Otherwise, it's all trial and error, and you know how long and expensive that can be.
We are not allowed to compete with industry, so if this is something you can get from Joe down the street, we can't do it for you. Part of our mission is to do great science and deliver impact (and) value back to the U.S. taxpayer. The "do great science" part of it we've totally got. It's in order for us to deliver the impact (that) we would like to be able to collaborate with industry.
Q: Do these companies typically come to you, or does your team find them?
A: It's both. We get (the majority of our) funding from the Department of Energy. Our annual operating budget is about $770 million as of last year. We have about 3,200 people at Argonne, and roughly half of them do science and engineering for a living. Because we're taxpayer-funded, there's a lot of encouragement to publish our results. So we'll go to conferences, we'll make presentations and so forth. Our publication attracts interest, or we go out and find companies. They also help us with the commercialization, which is absolutely key. When they are successful in building products the U.S. taxpayer uses, that generates jobs; that's how we create impact.
Q: What are some examples of companies Argonne has worked with?
A: Caterpillar and Cummins, large engine manufacturers. As you look at internal combustion engines and they scale in size from your two-wheeler all the way to the earth-moving equipment Caterpillar has, they're all basically the same concept but very different in how they perform. The complexity of these engines has grown exponentially. Fifty years ago, we would actually build and test (engines). That starts to become prohibitively expensive. A way around that is to do a lot of simulations.
Q: Why can't they do that on their own?
A: If you have truly that sophisticated of a model, your laptop is probably not going to be able to run it. You need a supercomputer. Our work with Caterpillar and Cummins, for example, has been around engine design and optimization work that has been done on our supercomputer. We have this virtual engine simulation research process and software that allows them to much more rapidly get to the next generation at a much lower cost.
Q: Is it Argonne's researchers doing the work, or do the companies send in employees?
A: It's both. In this case, Cat and Cummins worked with our teams here because there's a lot of in-house expertise, but we also do it the other way around. Because they're taxpayer-funded, we often put (models) in open-source domains. Often what we find is they will want to tweak the models, and it's much easier for them to work with us because we're more familiar with the supercomputer. The user facilities at the various Department of Energy labs, including Argonne, are available effectively for free if you are willing to publish your results. If you want to keep it proprietary, that's an option too, but then we ask you to pay a little bit of money toward recovering some cost, but it's still a deal.
Q: Do the fees generate any revenue for Argonne?
A: It's a user's fee. It simply covers some of the costs associated with their use of the equipment.
Q: Do you have partners that are doing all of their research and development here?
A: We have companies for whom the work they do here is an absolutely critical part. Drug companies are a great example, (like) AbbVie. In the process of drug development, you want to know how the protein responsible for a disease functions. At the Advanced Proton Source (one of the brightest X-ray sources in the Western Hemisphere), you get an X-ray image at the molecular level of the protein structure. That information helps drug developers design vaccines or treatments. Some researchers from drug companies spend all their time here.
Q: Is it local companies mostly, or are they coming from all over the country?
A: All over the country – even all over the world. We have over 7,000 independent users that come to use the facilities at Argonne on an annual basis.
Q: Is any of this threatened by the Trump administration's proposed 2018 budget?
A: I generally want to say we are open for business. Companies should feel free to come, and we will find ways to work with them. We plan to continue doing great science, and we'd really like to do it with companies and industry in a way that gets that science to market. That part of our mission remains. So I wouldn't worry about that. I don't. I focus on the part I can control.