This enormous national lab helped give birth to the nuclear age -- here's what's going on inside now

I thought my first visit to a Department of Energy lab would be reminiscent of the Hawkins National Laboratory, the top-secret facility depicted in “Stranger Things”.

The Argonne National Laboratory, founded in 1946, is roughly 50km from downtown Chicago in Lemont, Illinois. It grew out of the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago, which resulted in the development of the atomic bomb.

I recently toured the facility, and though I didn’t find any demogorgons or teens with telekinetic abilities, I watched scientists work with sponges that can soak up oil and longer-lasting next-generation batteries.

Here’s what it was like inside.

At Argonne National Laboratory, more than 1,600 scientists and engineers research basic biology and chemistry, and tackle major challenges like finding new sources of energy and protecting the environment. Argonne's campus takes up 600ha, and houses the Advanced Photon Source, a circular structure that's 1.1 kilometres in circumference.

The Advanced Photon Source, or APS, is essentially a powerful X-ray machine that can see a lot more than the technology doctors use to diagnose broken bones. Inside the APS's big ring-shaped facility, metal tubes carry high-energy X-rays that scientists can use to image materials from cancer drugs to butterfly wings.

Lydia Ramsey

The X-rays are split up into beams so that a number of researchers can use them at the same time in separate areas around the building.

Lydia Ramsey

Inside the rooms where the APS's X-ray beams go, scientists can run experiments. Researchers from around the world come to Argonne to work. This set-up is for researching battery materials.

Lydia Ramsey

Because the Advanced Photon Source is so big, researchers can ride around on tricycles, which get their own parking spots.

Lydia Ramsey

Since Argonne's nuclear beginning, the lab has played a role in developing and inventing the nuclear reactors available today.

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This full-size model shows what the first nuclear reactor looked like. In its initial test, the reactor was able to power up four light bulbs.

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In some of the lab space on Argonne's campus, scientists are working on the organic materials for a new generation of batteries that could be safer and more efficient than the ones we use today.

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Batteries have three main components: the anode and cathode (the negative and positive ends), and the electrolyte through which a charge can pass. Researchers in this part of the lab are working on the electrolyte component of next-generation batteries.

Scientists at Argonne develop large batches of new materials for battery experiments. Some of those materials get shipped to other research labs around the US.

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A researcher holds up a jar that's almost empty of an experimental material.

Researchers have also developed the Oleo sponge, a material that soaks up oil (even underwater) and can be re-used. The oil is dyed blue.

Elsewhere at Argonne is an office full of supercomputers, which make an almost deafening noise. Katherine Riley, director of science at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, said one supercomputer's power is equivalent to tens of thousands of laptops.

Lydia Ramsey

Argonne also has environmental researchers who do climate-change modelling and soil research. The experiment shown below demonstrates what happens when carbon is removed from soil as part of the ploughing process.

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The soil on the left came from a field that's been farmed for more than a century, so it doesn't have much carbon. It immediately lost its shape once it came in contact with the water. The soil on the right, meanwhile, came from a restored prairie and managed to stay intact.

Containing carbon within soil keeps it from being released into the air and contributing to climate change.

Once soil has lost its carbon, researchers found it takes 100 years to get back to 50% of the level it started with, and 400 years to get to 95%.

With new technology like a new supercomputer in the pipeline, it's likely the lab will continue to be behind some of the biggest scientific works in the US.

Former US president Barack Obama delivers remarks on energy at the Argonne National Lab. Picture: Getty Images

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