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Exterior shot of the Argonne Materials Design Laboratory
The Materials Design Laboratory is a 124,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art collaborative research facility for energy and materials scientists.
Credit: Mark Herboth Photography LLC

Designing for a National Lab's Rigorous Safety Standards

Argonne's Materials Design Laboratory hosts groundbreaking energy research

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The Materials Design Laboratory (MDL) is the final segment of Argonne National Laboratory’s Energy Quad, a collaborative research facility for energy and materials scientists who investigate structures at the scale of a single electron and larger. The US Department of Energy Office of Science research at Argonne National Laboratory supports the development of revolutionary materials and novel molecular processes to transform global energy production and storage. 

The MDL houses approximately 100 researchers and support staff tasked with discovering new materials, understanding how they work, and putting them to use. Some projects include tailored superconductors to transform the nation’s energy grid and improved materials for wind turbines. The 124,000 sq. ft. facility is designed with maximum flexibility to accommodate advancing research processes for the next 10 to 20 years. With a total project cost of $96 million, the project officially began occupation in February 2021. 

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For meeting the incredibly stringent and challenging safety standards of a US Department of Energy research center, Lab Manager has awarded IMEG Corp. with the Honorable Mention in Safety prize in the 2022 Design Excellence Awards. IMEG Corp. provided mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and technology engineering services for the Argonne National Laboratory Materials Design Laboratory in Lemont, IL. 

Updated space for state-of-the-art research

The project provided a much-needed modern space for collaborative science. Research for the Department of Energy Office of Science requires environmentally stable, specialized, flexible, and agile facilities—Argonne’s former multi-program space limited the advancement of modern synthetic and characterization methods and equipment, and many of its facilities were more than 40 years old and required constant repairs and maintenance. Additionally, the former space often failed to meet modern standards for high-resolution scientific apparatus requiring vibration, electromagnetic, and thermal stability. 

Research for the Department of Energy Office of Science requires environmentally stable, specialized, flexible, and agile facilities.

The project team collaborated closely with Argonne’s safety team to develop a design plan, including conversations with their radiological safety officer to ensure that appropriate radiation safety features were included in the design and construction of the MDL. The team produced the MDL Radiological Protection Design Criteria, a formal document that clearly lists the required engineered and administrative controls.

“As far as environmental safety and health, the objective was to eliminate or safely mitigate hazards while still meeting the project's deliverable goals. Environmental-wise, because it was a federally funded project, we did have to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. From a health and safety standpoint, a central organizing principle for the entire project was ALARA, which stands for ‘as low as reasonably achievable.’ The idea is to make every reasonable effort to maintain exposures to ionizing radiation as far below the dose limits as practical,” says Michael Finder, owner’s representative, Argonne National Laboratory.

The new facility accommodates wet and dry labs, along with conference rooms and private offices. Each floor contains a full-perimeter pedestrian corridor with laboratories situated on the interior of the pedestrian corridor and separated by a service corridor between them. Offices and engineering support areas are situated on the outward side of the pedestrian corridor and on the building perimeter to provide exterior views.

A unique set of safety challenges

The sensitive nature of the research that happens in the MDL means that innovative solutions are required to maintain a safe environment. The Office of Science has stringent requirements for its Materials for Energy programs, and Argonne meets these needs with its radiological, vibration-sensitive, and wet chemistry facilities. Including the mechanical floors, the building area is distributed over five floors above grade, with the basement floor housing the “wet” mechanical services for the building including a radiological waste retention tank. The ground floor, along with the first and second floors, were designed to connect to existing Energy Sciences Building floors.

The third-floor radiological laboratory is an isolated suite with controlled access and engineered controls to confine radiological material and has a single hazardous material storage room. Its location on the third floor means that dedicated HEPA-filter banks and associated control valves can be placed in a mechanical interstitial level directly above, serving only the radiological suite. A “cold corridor” bounds these labs and provides environmental isolation between the suite and the remaining areas of the floor, with access through a “warm service corridor” via change rooms. A dedicated service elevator allows for equipment, material, and waste transportation.

Researcher works on a superconductor in an MDL lab
Superconductor research conducted in the MDL requires large amounts of helium as a cryogenic, so a helium recovery system was designed for the facility.
Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

Brandon Fortier, national science & technology leader with IMEG, notes that the corridor design of the MDL is crucial to the flexible nature of the building. In fact, within the first year of construction, one of the lab users changed and a few lab bays needed to be completely redesigned to accommodate their research. This process was “seamless,” he says, since the changes were able to be done at zone level without other facilities and systems being impacted. 

“These labs are all very specialty-built and designed to the unique needs of each of these users. But Argonne is an institution that's been around for 70 years … and research purposes change and scientific users change,” Fortier says. “So instead of having to go back to centralized systems and change an entire engineered approach, what we wanted to do was provide flexibility … if [Argonne] needed to renovate a lab bay or a couple of lab bays, they had that ability to just do that at the zone level without having to change major infrastructure for the facility. From a system design and safety aspect, it allowed us to continue to operate the building in future renovations.” 

Specialty research

Vibration-sensitive labs are located at or below grade, as far from vibration sources as possible, and designed for vibration criteria (VC-E). Post-construction surveys confirm that all slab-on-grade labs are exceeding those requirements, and that four subterranean cryogenic “pits” are performing at VC-G. The labs with electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio frequency sensitivities are located on the floor farthest from electrical and magnetic interference to provide isolation, and the main electrical room ceiling is lined with aluminum shielding in order to further reduce EMI.

The MDL houses a program dedicated to superconductor research, which means that the facility requires the use of large amounts of helium as a cryogenic. To reduce financial burden, a helium recovery system was designed: after liquid helium is used in cryostats in various ground floor labs, it vaporizes into a gas and gets captured through exhaust lines. It is then blown to a centralized recovery vessel in a nearby building. The gaseous helium is filtered and analyzed for purity, and then re-liquified via a compression cycle. It is then stored in cylinders and brought back to the MDL to be reused. 

The facility design also accounted for contaminants exhausted from the facility to make sure they are not included in new outside air intakes or intakes from existing adjacent buildings. A wind dispersion model was built and tested in a wind tunnel to confirm the exhaust design is safe and to ensure the appropriate locations for new intake openings. Exhaust stack locations, exhaust stack heights, exhaust air velocities, and outside air intake locations were all studied to ensure indoor air quality was sufficient.

Researcher works in a glove box in an MDL lab.
Laboratory fume hoods and Kynar-coated stainless-steel gloveboxes contain dispersible radioactive materials. Fume hoods, gloveboxes, and dry boxes are exhausted through double HEPA filtration. HEPA filters within individual laboratories are also provided in the event of an airborne radioactivity release.
Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

“I think what's important from a lab planning approach for this science mission is that each lab unto itself is almost a core lab—with the exception of maybe exhaust devices, whether it's a local exhaust fan, a fume hood, or a glove box,” says Paul Hansen, national team leader with Flad Architects, which served as the architect, lab planner, structural engineer, and landscape architecture firm for the project. “Each research tool housed in a lab, or an instrument, was a unique tool specific to their specific energy research mission—we had chiral probes, sputtering equipment, reactors, furnaces, high vac for most of the labs, roughing pumps that generated a lot of noise and had some environmental challenges.”

Aside from a short shutdown in December, the MDL operates year-round as a research facility. This presents an issue as safety regulations stipulate that routine and corrective maintenance cannot take place on operating equipment. The building design needed to include a solution that would allow for the isolation of mechanical and electrical systems without losing system capacity within the laboratories. This was accomplished by providing redundant HVAC and plumbing equipment (air handlers, heat exchangers, pumps, fans, etc.) and connecting that equipment to both normal and emergency power supplies. All the labs were designed to be served from two separate panels and transformers, which means that electrical equipment can be taken offline and serviced without losing power to the individual labs.

The goal of this project was to create a space that successfully accommodates the unique and sensitive laboratory equipment in the labs and to develop an adaptable, high-performance building at the forefront of energy research. The project team overcame hurdles related to the crucial safety controls related to a radiological facility, along with the sustainability goals set by the Department of Energy. The result is a leading research institution with an anticipated lifespan of 50 years.