To celebrate Berkeley Lab’s nine decades of transforming discovery science into solutions that benefit the world, we’ll roll out 90 Berkeley Lab breakthroughs over the next several months. These landmark achievements — by no means a comprehensive list and in no particular order — offer a tour of some of the many game-changing discoveries developed at Berkeley Lab over the years.
A new batch of breakthroughs will be added periodically until we reach 90. BELOW ARE THE LATEST
Bevalac Begins Era of Relativistic Heavy-Ion Physics
The combination of the Bevatron, a powerful proton accelerator ring, with the Hilac, or heavy ion linear accelerator, at Berkeley Lab provided high enough beam energies to enable the first scientific studies of relativistic heavy-ion physics. Elements as heavy as uranium could be accelerated so fast that effects relating to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity dominate over classical physics. Such studies provided new information about how protons interact with simple and complex atomic nuclei.
Invented Hydrogen Bubble Chamber, Discovered Many Resonance States
Luis Walter Alvarez received the 1968 Nobel Prize in physics “for his decisive contributions to elementary particle physics, in particular the discovery of a large number of resonance states, made possible through his development of the technique of using hydrogen bubble chamber and data analysis.” The hydrogen bubble chambers he created enabled detailed photographs of particle paths, and an understanding of resonances, which are short-lived phenomena associated with particles called hadrons.
Developed a New Class of CCDs for Astronomy
Berkeley Lab scientists in 2000 developed a new class of charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, with record efficiency in infrared wavelengths of light. CCDs are semiconductor devices that convert light into electrical charge, forming high-resolution images. The CCD technology also had applications in medical imaging and space X-ray imagery.
Cooked up a More Efficient, Safer Burner
Tired of waiting for the water to boil? Today’s cooktop burners lose a lot of heat and emit high levels of NOx and CO, contributing to unhealthy indoor air. In 2015, Berkeley Lab scientists invented a burner that generates exceptionally even heating, maximizes energy efficiency, and reduces NOx emissions by 90% and CO emissions by more than 50%.
Developed Mathematical Methods to Study Proteins
To visualize the structure of proteins in their native environment, scientists can blast powerful X-ray beams at tiny volumes of proteins in solution. The resulting ‘diffraction patterns’ can then be interpreted to determine, or reconstruct, information about the protein’s molecular structure. This process is called fluctuation X-ray scattering, and Berkeley Lab researchers in 2015 developed a tool called “M-TIP” that can quickly determine the general structure of a sample in only a few minutes on a desktop computer.
Expanded the Catalog of the Earth’s Microbial and Viral Diversity
Researchers have worked since the late 2000s to design methods that accelerate the identification of microbes and viruses residing in complex ecosystems from the Arctic to the Antarctic, oceans, lakes, soils, and extreme environments such as hot springs. This has enabled the discovery of billions of genes and a path to understanding their role for diverse applications from agriculture to human health.
Helped Establish Air Conditioning with Less Energy Worldwide
Berkeley Lab’s analysis helped the U.S. Department of Energy establish the strongest efficiency standard in U.S. history, covering rooftop air conditioners and furnaces (28 years after Berkeley Lab supported America’s first-ever national appliance efficiency standards for refrigerators, see #9 on the list). In parallel, after identifying that improving cooling efficiency would double the 0.5 degree climate benefit of the refrigerant transition under the Kigali Amendment in 2016, Berkeley Lab’s international energy scientists provided technical support for substantial revisions of cooling efficiency standards in many countries including China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.
In the 1990s, Berkeley Lab geoscientists developed the first three-dimensional models to simulate coupled flow and heat transport associated with planned long-term burial of containers of radioactive waste deep below Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Decoded the Origin of Universe’s Heavy Elements: Neutron Star Mergers
For many years, the origin of heavy elements such as gold and uranium was a puzzle. Berkeley Lab scientists developed models and simulations on colliding neutron stars and discovered that the aftermath of radiation emission is a tell-tale sign that when neutron stars merge, heavy elements are produced.
Revealed Clues to the Solar System’s Formation
Comets are believed to preserve the original constituents of our Solar System in relatively unaltered form. In 2006, Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source provided critical analysis of comet dust collected during NASA’s Stardust mission, revealing that material mixing started earlier in the planetary formation process than previously thought and was more extensive.
Invention of the Bubble Chamber, Which Traces Particle Tracks
Berkeley Labs Donald Glaser in 1952 invented the bubble chamber, which was used to trace the bubble tracks of subatomic particles produced in collider experiments. Glaser received the 1960 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the bubble chamber. Bubble chambers contained superheated liquid, and when struck by accelerated particles the liquid produced a trail of bubbles that were photographed through a window in the chamber. The instruments provided detailed information about particle properties.
Discovered the Anti-Proton
In 1955, a team used Berkeley Lab’s Bevatron particle accelerator to make the first observation of an antiproton, which is the antiparticle of the proton. It is identical to the proton in most ways but has a negative electrical charge. Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segrè in 1959 shared the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery.
Eighty percent of people with coronary artery disease have normal cholesterol levels. Berkeley Lab scientists invented a gradient gel electrophoresis test to measure cholesterol subclasses (HDL, LDL, IDL, and VLDL) as well as ion mobility analysis to measure the size distribution and number of these particles. This discovery, licensed to industry in the mid-1990s, enabled doctors to identify patients at higher risk for heart attacks.
Speakers, earbuds, headphones, and microphones will never be the same. Scientists have found a way to use ultrathin graphene film to make transducers that are smaller than conventional devices and require less power. The graphene film transducers, licensed in 2016, convert electric signals into sound that is almost distortion-free and of equal quality at high and low frequencies.
Supernovae—the explosive deaths of massive stars—produce most of the materials of the Universe, including crucial elements for life. Because these events cannot be studied up close, astrophysicists rely on physics, math, and supercomputers to dissect their innerworkings. Berkeley Lab computational scientists create codes that make these studies possible.
Several Berkeley Lab researchers were cited in the Scientific Background for the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Their work over the last five decades includes contributions such as: cooling samples to improve resistance to radiation damage; technical solutions for specimen handling at cryogenic temperatures; spot scan imaging to minimize beam-induced movement; dynamic focus correction to improve clarity; and transmission electron microscopy work that corroborated the utility of achieving atomic resolution structures by averaging over many copies.
In the 2000s, Berkeley Lab scientists introduced tools and methods for addressing climate change through geological carbon sequestration–a strategy that involves pumping CO2 deep underground for permanent storage in saline aquifers and depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs.
Using a process called lithography, semiconductor chip manufacturers currently use visible light to print circuits on microchips. Beginning in the early 2000s, Berkeley Lab researchers pioneered techniques to replace visible light with higher energy extreme ultraviolet light for lithography, which enable chip manufacturers to print smaller features, allowing more transistors to be squeezed into next-generation microchips with unprecedented speed and energy efficiency.
Using nature as a guide, researchers at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry created synthetic, bio-inspired polymers capable of self-folding into protein-like structures. These polymers – called peptoids – are versatile and have applications ranging from engineering antiviral agents and biomedical antifreeze molecules to detecting toxins or purifying water.
Berkeley Lab’s Saul Perlmutter was a co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for his research team’s unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Using explosions from Type Ia supernova as a marker, Perlmutter and his team found that their light was weaker than expected – evidence that the universe’s expansion is accelerating. The accelerating expansion of the universe implies the existence of so-called dark energy, a mysterious force that acts to oppose gravity and increase the distance among galaxies.
Discovered 16 Elements
Starting in the 1930s, Lab scientists began building big machines and assembling teams of scientists and engineers to discover new elements. Over the next several decades they were credited with discovering 16 elements, including every element from neptunium (element 93) to seaborgium (106). Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan shared the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discoveries of elements that are heavier than uranium. McMillan discovered neptunium and Seaborg was co-discoverer of plutonium and nine other elements heavier than uranium.
Ever wonder how plants turn sunlight into energy? Berkeley Lab’s Melvin Calvin determined the path of carbon through photosynthesis, a scientific milestone that illuminated one of life’s most important processes. Today, this work allows scientists to explore how to derive sustainable energy sources from the sun. Calvin was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this research.
Invented Portable Infant Warmers for the Developing World
Hypothermia is a leading cause of death in premature babies, many of which are born in areas where incubators are impractical or electricity is unreliable. In 2015, scientists developed a portable infant warmer pad, which uses a USDA-approved biosafe phase change material (PCM) which is heated with hot water and can keep babies warm for several hours.
Performed the First Simulation of Lab-scale Combustion
Combustion powers everything from cars to power plants. With a better understanding of how it works, researchers can reduce the amount of pollution produced by burning fossil fuels. In 2004, Berkeley Lab scientists made a significant stride toward this understanding by producing the first laboratory-scale combustion simulations of turbulent flames using NERSC supercomputers.
Evaluating Buildings — Before They’re Built
Berkeley Lab’s FLEXLAB®, which opened in 2012 as the world’s first advanced integrated building and grid technologies testbed, lets researchers evaluate the performance of building systems, alone or in combination with others. Research includes energy saving lighting and HVAC, building integrated PV, using buildings and EVs to lower peak energy costs, clean air strategies and occupant comfort, but that only scratches the surface. It’s proven so successful, the Lab is now advising others on how to build similar facilities.
Closed the Knowledge Gap From Gene Sequence to Function
The function of a given gene may only become apparent under certain conditions. Double Barcoded Shotgun Expression Library Sequencing (Dub-seq) is a high-throughput method for discovering gene function in microbes under various environmental conditions. It was introduced for licensing in 2015 and scientists can adapt it to discover new enzymes, find new cancer drugs, gain insight into resistance to viruses, and understand how antibiotics act on microbes that cause disease.
Plugged an Historic Natural Gas Leak
Berkeley Lab environmental scientists helped stop the worst methane leak in history in 2015, using their TOUGH computer modeling to simulate behavior of the leaking well at the Aliso Canyon underground gas storage facility. This allowed them to evaluate why eight previous attempts were unsuccessful, and to develop an effective solution for arresting the leak.
Made Your Digital Display More Vibrant
In the late 1990’s, Berkeley Lab scientists invented a way to make spherical semiconductor nanocrystals that emit extremely pure light of almost any color, depending on their size. These “quantum dots” are now responsible for the pure, true-to-life color found in millions of TV displays sold around the world.
Created a New Type of Plastic That Is Infinitely Recyclable
Light and sturdy, plastic is great until you no longer need it. In 2019, Researchers at BerkeleyLab’s Molecular Foundry created a new kind of plastic that can easily be broken down into its starting components and reused again and again without loss of performance or quality.
Invented Particle Accelerators
Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron set the stage for particle accelerators worldwide and pioneered improvements for modern accelerators powerful enough to “see” what is within subatomic particles. He won the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the cyclotron.
Created a Powerful Genetic Engineering Tool
The discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic engineering technology has radically changed genomics research. Biochemist Jennifer Doudna, a Berkeley Lab faculty scientist, co-won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery. This genome-editing technology enables scientists to change or remove genes quickly, with a precision only dreamed of just a few years ago. Labs worldwide have redirected the course of their research to incorporate this new tool, with huge implications across biology, agriculture, and medicine.
Identified Good & Bad Cholesterol
The battle against heart disease received a boost in the 1960s when Berkeley Lab research unveiled the good and bad sides of cholesterol. Today, diagnostic tests that detect both types of cholesterol save lives.
Expanded the Tree of Life
The Tree of Life, which depicts how life has evolved and diversified on the planet, expanded in 2016 thanks to geoscience expertise at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, which discovered a vast number of microorganisms from a Colorado aquifer, reshaping our understanding of Earth’s biological organization.
Built a System to Keep Data Science Flowing
To meet scientific demands for faster speeds and larger data capacity, global research networks like ESnet built a high-speed internet backbone to connect researchers to supercomputing centers and experimental facilities. But firewalls at the local network borders can significantly slow network speeds. Starting in 2010, ESnet researchers crafted a solution called “Science DMZ.”
Confirmed the Big Bang
George Smoot shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of subtle irregularities in the cosmic microwave background radiation, the faint thermal afterglow from the Big Bang. These irregularities led to the condensation of matter into gas clouds, stars, and galaxies.
Made Building Responsive to the Grid
Berkeley Lab-led work developed the Open Automated Demand Response (OpenADR) communication system, an open standard that lets electricity providers send signals about price and grid needs directly to customers over the Internet, helping to facilitate clean, reliable energy use. As a result of the effort started in the early 2000s, it is now the most widely used open standard for such communications around the world, and essential for modernizing our electricity grid.
Enabled the First Portable Medical Gamma Camera
Berkeley Lab scientists adapted an ultra-sensitive charge-coupled device (CCD) and photodiode for a supercollider gamma ray detector, into a light sensor for medical imaging. The technology, developed in the mid 1990’s, is now used in a compact, portable solid state gamma camera on wheels, a huge improvement over stationary cameras weighing 2 tons.