Ask a long-time scientist about the differences between working today and yesterday, and you will hear a story of rapid transformation.
Chemists Lawrence Harding, Joe Michael, and Albert Wagner of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have a century of combined experience in combustion chemistry, and have seen the advances and changes that have been made since the late 1970s. But even after building upon things that they discovered a decade ago, they never get bored.
“For most people who get to be my age, there’s a feeling that they’ve seen it all before,” said Wagner. “Not so for me. Every day I can go in, turn on my computer and do calculations whose results can represent something new that no one has seen before. And that’s a remarkable thing.”
The three researchers work in combustion kinetics, a field of chemistry that focuses on increasing the efficiency of burning fuel and predicting how different elements will interact with each other in the combustion process. Harding and Wagner work as theorists, calculating and approximating how reactions will unfold, while Michael is an experimentalist, carrying out the experiments that the calculations are trying to model.
For each of them, their first experience with science was through a childhood chemistry set. Almost immediately, Wagner began to create noxious gases, while Harding focused his energy on blowing things up, creating gunpowder and small explosives. For Michael, the set sparked an interest in science, but not necessarily chemistry.
“When I was 10 or 11, my dad asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’” Michael said, “I said that I wanted to be an astronomer because I wanted to sit down and look at the stars.”
Harding, Michael, and Wagner describe their journey to Argonne as the result of a willingness to try new things and distinct, small decisions that didn’t seem to hold a lot of weight at the time. For instance, instead of gazing at the stars, Michael worked as a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a research associate at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland before arriving at Argonne in 1987 to work on experimental combustion kinetics. He joined Wagner and Harding, who had earlier joined the theory group in the late 1970s.
The three have since collaborated on more than 20 studies and have helped to revolutionize the way combustion chemistry is done. Their collaboration continues today.
Wagner and Harding were pioneers in the area of combustion kinetics theory, which helps to calculate how different chemicals interact in combustion experiments. As supercomputers became increasingly powerful and were able to do more advanced calculations, theorists were able to more accurately predict the outcomes of experiments, and their work became an integral part of combustion chemistry.
“I remember when we started, we’d go to international combustion symposiums where we were the only theorists,” Harding said. “It was hard to convince the combustion chemists that we had something important to say. But now, when we go to one of these events, there are more theorists than experimentalists, and it’s mainly because of how much better computers have become in the last 35 years.”
With time, Harding, Michael and Wagner distinguished themselves in the combustion kinetics community, solving problems that had been studied for years without resolution. This has resulted in internal recognition; two have become Distinguished Fellows and two have received Director’s awards. In addition, Harding has been externally recognized by the international Combustion Symposium, receiving the Bernard Lewis gold medal in 2014.
“We really do have a team here,” says Wagner. “We’ve really enjoyed working together, not just the three of us, but working with all the other people here. We have a good team, we have a good group leader, we have a real sense of what we’re trying to do, and we have a presence in our community. I think all three of us feel really lucky to have ended up here.”