Ames Lab at a Glance

Ames Laboratory is one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 10 Office of Science research laboratories.  The Lab is operated by Iowa State University for the DOE. 

The Laboratory effectively focuses diverse fundamental and applied research strengths upon issues of national concern, cultivates tomorrow's research talent, and develops and transfers technologies to improve industrial competitiveness and enhance U.S. economic security. At the forefront of current materials research, high-performance computing, and environmental science and management efforts, the Laboratory seeks solutions to energy-related problems through the exploration of physics, chemistry, engineering, applied mathematics and materials sciences. All operations are conducted so as to maintain the health and safety of all workers, and with a genuine concern for the environment.

Ames Laboratory employs more than 430 full- and part-time employees, including more than 250 scientists and engineers. The Laboratory’s workforce also includes more than 350 non-paid associates in departments throughout Iowa State University. Students make up more than 20 percent of the paid workforce. Ames Lab’s estimated 2011 budget is $33.5 million. The Lab has an annual payroll of approximately $18 million and supplies roughly 10 percent of the federal sponsored funding awarded to ISU.

Research at ISU for the government gave Ames Laboratory its start in the 1940s with the development of a highly efficient process for producing high-purity uranium for atomic energy.  The Ames project produced more than 1,000 tons of pure uranium for the Manhattan Project. In 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission formally established the Ames Laboratory with Frank Spedding as its first director.

Programs and Research Thrusts

Capitalizing on its close connection with ISU, Ames Laboratory carries out interdisciplinary research focused on national issues. The Lab is at the forefront of materials research, high-performance computing and analytical science. It also directs the development of applied technologies and the quick transfer of these technologies to industry. The Lab’s research falls within five program areas:

  • Materials Science and Engineering
  • Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences
  • Chemical and Biological Sciences
  • Environmental and Protection Sciences
  • Simulation, Modeling and Decision Science

Materials Synthesis and Processing

An internationally recognized leader in materials sciences, the Ames Laboratory develops new ways to produce and use existing materials. The Lab also creates new, environmentally friendly materials to meet tomorrow’s scientific challenges.

Ames Lab is widely known for its expertise in the synthesis and processing of rare-earth materials with unique purity and crystal structure, and high desirability. Other high-tech materials under study at the Lab include metals and intermetallics, ceramics and polymers.

In addition, the Lab’s Materials Preparation Center, a specialized research resource, recognized throughout the worldwide research community for its unique capabilities in the preparation, purification, and characterization of rare earth, alkaline-earth, and refractory metal materials.

Chemical and Analytical Sciences

Ames Laboratory researchers are established leaders in creating useful analytical tools, pioneering the use of inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy — a sensitive, selective tool for multielement analysis that is now commonplace in laboratories worldwide. Other areas under exploration include:

  • Understanding the surface properties of quasicrystals
  • Understanding the structure and dynamics of fuel-cell membranes using NMR technology
  • Studying the chemical and physical aspects of chemical carcinogenesis through advanced laser techniques
  • Developing methods for analyzing the contents of nanoscale samples

Complex Solids

Ames Laboratory is home to world-renowned experts in the area of complex intermetallics, including quasicrystals.  Complex intermetallics are materials with large unit cells.  Quasicrystals are materials that lack a traditional unit cell and contain traditionally-forbidden rotational symmetries. Ames Laboratory researchers are probing these complex materials and other complex metal-rich solids to understand the relationship between their novel properties and structure. Seminal aspects of this research include microscopic and mesoscopic morphology, atomic locations, electronic structure, surface structure, interfacial growth, friction, and chemical reactivity.   Researchers address fundamentals of designing and perfecting atom- and energy-efficient synthetic methods for new, complex metal-rich materials, that offer potential for thermoelectrics, magneto-responsive processes, molecular storage, coatings and other surface-related applications.

High-performance Computing

Advanced computing systems can deliver more accurate and reliable results, but scientists sometimes have difficulty adapting research problems to these computers.  Researchers at Ames’ Scalable Computing Laboratory use a variety of approaches to make parallel computing more accessible.

Lab scientists have also developed a method for evaluating the performance of computers, which promises to revolutionize the way computers are compared.

Environmental and Protection Sciences

Ames Laboratory is helping DOE identify and develop new technologies that can be applied to national problems that affect the environment, industrial operations and forensic investigations. Current research activities include:

  • Investigating the use of atomic spectroscopy in analyzing crime-scene evidence as well as for continuous-emission monitoring of heavy metals released into the environment.
  • Developing analytical methods and instrumentation for matching the composition of trace evidence, recovering defaced serial numbers and examining bomb-blast evidence to determine force and location.
  • Using nondestructive analysis for rapid determination of actinides and other heavy metals.

Condensed Matter Physics

     Condensed Matter Physics is focused on the synthesis, development and characterization of new materials and on the systematic study or discovery of phenomena relevant for materials utilizations in various energy technologies.  This scientific focus includes fundamental research in neutron scattering. X-ray scattering, optical properties of solids and surfaces, new materials, superconductivity, magnetic materials, photonic bandgap and left-handed materials, magnetic molecules and clusters, optical and surface physics, spin dynamics, and computational materials sciences.

CMP scientists are world renowned for their ability to develop, generate and investigate areas of interest.  In most cases, the thrust of the research efforts is the investigation of new phenomena or the creating of new materials exhibiting unusual and potentially useful properties.

Solid-state Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging

      Ames Laboratory researchers develop and apply transient techniques in solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, to probe the chemical and physical properties of materials involved in heterogeneous catalysis, surface science and materials science. The work on catalysts, which in recent years constituted most of the research effort, focuses on studying the properties of surfaces, as well as the molecular structure, dynamics and reactions of the adsorbed species.
     Development of new solid-state NMR methods for these studies is the second major research area. Current efforts include the development of techniques based on multiple-quantum MAS, or magic angle spinning, NMR, homo- and hetero-nuclear correlation experiments for spin-1/2 and quadrupolar nuclei, methods utilizing ultrafast MAS and methods for measuring internuclear distances in solids.

Selected Highlights and Accomplishments

  • Significant advancements in research on left-handed materials, also known as metamaterials, could lead to the development of a flat superlens with the power to see inside a human cell.
  • Demonstrated that low friction is intrinsic to the aperiodic atomic structure of a clean quasicrystalline surface, laying to rest the possibility that low friction in these materials is due (solely) to hardness or oxide chemistries.
  • Discovered new quasicrystal and approximants.
  • Patented a lead-free solder formula now licensed by more than 60 companies worldwide to help meet restrictions banning lead from consumer products.
  • Using Raman imaging to study plant cell structure to determine the best plants for conversion to ethanol.
  • A high performance permanent magnet alloy that operates with good magnetic strength at 200 C (392 F) to help advance electric drive-motor technology for future “ultragreen” vehicles.
  • Developed a software program that can quickly analyze and detect altered computer images.
  • Nanosphere catalysts that react vegetable oils and animal fats with methanol to produce biodiesel fuel.
  • A new superconducting wire compound made from magnesium diboride that has the ability to carry electricity approximately 20 times better than the reigning niobium-based superconductor.
  • A new alloy that’s the second-hardest substance after diamond. The material, which is expected to cost substantially less than diamond, has applications in abrasives and cutting tools.
  • New techniques and tools for forensics to increase the speed and accuracy of criminal investigations.
  • Magnetic refrigerants that are expected to improve refrigerator and air conditioner efficiency by an estimated 30 percent and sharply reduce operating costs.
  • A revolutionary laser technology that dramatically reduces the time needed to gather human genetic information, which may help in the fight against cancer and genetic diseases.
  • Powder metallurgy processing techniques to produce special materials of superior performance, such as those used in the permanent magnets that help power automobiles and computers.


Each year, scores of graduate and undergraduate students work with Ames Laboratory researchers, getting hands-on experience in solving scientific problems. Upon graduation, these students put their skills to work in a variety of disciplines.
Ames Laboratory operates two summer internships, one for undergraduate students and the other for middle school science teachers.  In addition, the Laboratory reaches out to Iowa students through its annual High School and Middle School Science Bowl competitions — intense, fast-paced events that reward students for their knowledge of science and math.

For more information, please contact:

Public Affairs
Ames Laboratory
111 TASF
Ames, Iowa 50011-3020
(515) 294-9557
FAX:  (515) 294-3226