How Things Break (and Why Scientists Want to Know)

Posted: September 26, 2016

Breaking things can help scientists answer both the most elemental and the most everyday questions.

Humans spend a lot of time creating things—this drives a huge amount of our lives, economically and personally—and we are always in a fight to keep them from breaking down. Houses, roads, cars. Power lines and bridges. Solar cells and computers. Batteries. People.

Then there are the things we want to break down, and are always searching for better ways to do it: Harmful pollutants in the soil. Old buildings. The cellulose in plant fibers, so we can make it into biofuels. Atoms, so we can harness the energy they release as nuclear energy, and find out what makes up the universe.

Much of our lives revolve around either of these categories, and they constantly occupy the minds of scientists and engineers. An entire lab at Argonne is devoted to finding out what goes wrong when batteries stop working. No fewer than five accelerators designed to smash tiny things into one another are running at any given time on the campus.

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