World Laboratory Day

By Iva Fedorka

We celebrate World Laboratory Day every year on April 23 to honor the unique workspaces that provide controlled conditions and enable scientific research, experiments, and measurement. Products developed in laboratories, like Thomas Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, have benefited mankind and the world in many ways.

The National Laboratory System

In the United States, the system of national laboratories and technology centers managed by the Department of Energy (DOE) is one of the largest scientific research organizations in the world. Through these organizations, the DOE provides nearly half of the total U.S. funding for physics, chemistry, materials sciences, and other scientific research and studies.

The national laboratories developed to support the Allies during World War II, and also produced radar, the computer, proximity fuses, and the atomic bomb. Today’s labs grew from the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, the Ernest O. Lawrence Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge started as secret bomb research sites, and the University of Chicago’s nuclear reactor research became the foundation of the Argonne National Laboratory.

After the war, the new U.S. Atomic Energy Commission oversaw these locations and expanded the network to include other labs, each centered on a specific group of technologies. The DOE has responsibility for the system today, and subcontracts management to local private companies or academic institutions at some locations.

Focused on Energy and National Security

The DOE manages the nation’s nuclear weapons program, nuclear reactor production for the U.S. Navy, energy conservation, energy-related research, radioactive waste disposal, domestic energy production, and genomics research efforts. Each location focuses on specific scientific research areas and has a unique niche in the science world. Here are a few examples:

  • Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) conducts an annual Western National Robot Rodeo, where expert bomb squad operators and public safety professionals from around the world gather to maneuver robots in challenging, real-world hazardous duty scenarios.

    At Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), researchers are using computer modeling to help predict and manage wildfires. This work supports risks to the lab itself, while addressing energy and national security issues.
  • The Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) is helping paleontologists study dinosaur bones without harming the fossils. X-rays generated by their giant synchrotron let scientists see inside the arm bones of SUE, the world’s largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.
  • The Golden, Colorado, campus of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NERL) has achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and/or net zero energy status for many of their buildings, which are surrounded by landscaping that does not require irrigation.

"I beseech you to take interest in these sacred domains so expressively called laboratories. Ask that there be more and that they be adorned for these are the temples of the future, wealth and well-being. It is here that humanity will grow, strengthen and improve."

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

User Facilities and Workforce Training

Beyond their own professional staff, the national labs share facilities and capabilities with the scientific public. The DOE Office of Science (SC) manages 27 locations that offer access to the accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, light and neutron sources, and facilities for studying nanomaterials, the environment, and the atmosphere. During fiscal year 2015, more than 32,000 academic, industrial, and government researchers from all fifty states and the District of Columbia used these facilities.

Users are chosen based solely on the merit of their proposed work. No fees are charged for conducting experiments intended for publication, but charges are incurred when using any facility for proprietary work. A formal user organization facilitates information sharing, collaborations, and schedule coordination.

The DOE and SC are also committed to training and supporting scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. In addition, they offer research and development awards and support educational and training programs. More than 250,000 K-12 students, 22,000 K-12 educators, 4,000 undergraduate interns, 3,000 graduate students, and 1,600 postdoctoral researchers benefit annually. The SC Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) also sponsors programs to motivate science career pursuits and supports other STEM education programs. 

Labs exist in many forms — look for them in schools and universities, in industry, in agricultural settings, in government or military facilities, and even on ships and spacecraft. The national laboratories are just one example of these special places that make such an important difference to our world.

Visit energy.govfor more information about the DOE and the national laboratory system.

World Laboratory Day