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UChicago Physics Prof Appointed Director of Argonne National Laboratory

Peter B. Littlewood, a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and the associate laboratory director for Physical Sciences and Engineering at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, has been selected to serve as Argonne’s 13th director, President Robert J. Zimmer announced March 25.

by University of Chicago
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Peter B. Littlewood.Photo courtesy of Argonne National LaboratoryLittlewood becomes director at a time of significant growth and momentum for Argonne, marked by transformational scientific discoveries and a key role in the region’s expanding innovation ecosystem. Landmark projects are underway in fields such as high-performance computing and energy storage, even as the laboratory builds next-generation facilities.

As associate laboratory director, Littlewood has led an innovative cross-disciplinary approach that brings together leading researchers in materials science, physics, chemistry and computation to create new materials with the potential to revolutionize energy science. Those efforts made Argonne a key part of the Center for Hierarchical Materials Design, which was recently awarded $25 million by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to establish a new center of excellence for advanced materials research.

Littlewood will succeed Eric D. Isaacs, who is leaving Argonne to become provost at the University of Chicago on March 31.

“Peter has an international reputation as an accomplished scientist, and a record of strong leadership in guiding scientific organizations,” said Zimmer, who is chairman of the board of governors of UChicago Argonne LLC, which manages the laboratory. “We look forward to working with him to advance Argonne and its partnerships, which are addressing some of the most important scientific challenges of our time.”

'Right person to lead Argonne'

The University of Chicago has managed Argonne for DOE since 1946, when the laboratory was established under the guidance of its first director, Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi. Since then, Argonne has grown to be one of the nation’s foremost centers for discovery and innovation in clean energy, environment, technology and national security.

Littlewood was recommended by a search committee of eight distinguished scientists and leaders led by Don Levy, vice president for research and for national laboratories at the University of Chicago and chief executive officer of UChicago Argonne, LLC. His selection was strongly endorsed by U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.  

“The director’s position is of crucial importance to Argonne, to the DOE and to the future of our nation’s scientific research enterprise,” said Patricia Dehmer, acting director of the DOE’s Office of Science. “Building upon Argonne’s record of outstanding achievement and his own leadership in the physics community, Dr. Littlewood will guide the laboratory’s vision, identify new challenges, and develop a strategy to continue delivering world-renowned, mission-driven research and innovation.”

As Argonne’s director, Littlewood will have oversight responsibility for a variety of high-impact projects at the laboratory.

The laboratory has already launched the Advanced Photon Source Upgrade project, building a powerful, versatile, next-generation facility that will assure U.S. leadership in synchrotron science.

Scientists at Argonne also are leading a high-performance computing effort, which has set a goal of building the world’s first exascale computer, capable of one million trillion operations per second. Argonne is also home to the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, designated in 2013 as the DOE’s Batteries and Energy Storage Hub, a $120 million five-year effort ­to create transformative new battery systems for transportation and the grid.

Littlewood will guide Argonne’s multiyear Lab Modernization plan, which is bringing state-of-the-art research facilities to the Argonne campus outside Chicago.

“Peter is the right person to lead Argonne at this moment in the lab’s history. He is a brilliant scientist who has a great gift for bringing talented people together and inspiring them to collaborate in powerful, productive new ways,” Isaacs said. “In his three years at Argonne, Peter has dramatically strengthened Argonne’s work in the physical sciences by reaching across the laboratory, and bringing computation, synthesis and imaging together as a fundamental part of materials discovery and creation.

“In my new role as provost, I look forward to working closely with Peter to continue building on the partnership between Argonne and the University, and supporting the growing eminence of institutions such as the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the Chicago Innovation Exchange,” Isaacs said.

Building upon lab's legacy

Littlewood has been a key contributor to the Institute for Molecular Engineering, which UChicago established in 2011 in partnership with Argonne. The Institute is using molecular-level science to address some of the world’s most challenging technological problems—from assuring safe, clean and abundant water resources to creating the new materials genome.

“I am proud to follow in the footsteps of so many great scientists and leaders in this powerful laboratory,” Littlewood said. “Argonne has changed the world by finding solutions to big challenges for both science and society, from the science of the nucleus to nuclear power, and from the structure of the universe to the structure of proteins. Engaging the grand challenges of energy and sustainability, Argonne is well positioned with our great legacy, strong programs, and above all, our talented and committed staff. It will be an honor to assist them to even greater successes.”

Littlewood came to Argonne from the University of Cambridge, where he served as head of the Cavendish Laboratory and the Department of Physics, and before that the Cavendish’s Theory of Condensed Matter Group. There, he stewarded new programs ranging from biophysics and atomic physics to sustainability and energy sciences, initiating substantial budget growth and new laboratory construction in biophysics and astrophysics.

During a 2003-2004 sabbatical leave, he was the Matthias Scholar at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he did collaborative research with laboratory staff in theoretical physics, materials science, atomic physics and nuclear radiation detection. From 1980 through 1997, Littlewood worked at Bell Laboratories, where he rose to become head of Theoretical Physics Research. He was named a distinguished member of Bell Labs’ technical staff in 1989. He also has been a consultant for Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Littlewood holds a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences (physics) and a PhD in physics, both from the University of Cambridge. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London, the Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society, and is an associate member of The World Academy of Sciences. Littlewood holds six patents and has published more than 200 articles in scientific journals. A notable speaker, he has given more than 100 invited talks at international conferences, universities and laboratories.

Littlewood serves as a professor of physics in the University of Chicago’s James Franck Institute; he also is a fellow of the University’s Institute for Molecular Engineering.