Feature Story | 10-Jul-2024

Argonne’s Renaissance man accelerates innovation as a scientist and engineer

Sergey Chemerisov manages accelerator operations while conducting research across radiation chemistry, nuclear medicine, semiconductor materials and more

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Sergey Chemerisov had no interest in being a scientist — even though scientists were regarded highly there, and career opportunities were plentiful.

“When adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always told them I wanted to be an engineer,” he explained. ​“But when I became a teenager, I felt a drive and an obligation to take on the hardest challenges I could find in order to grow. And it seemed like science required a lot of effort, ingenuity and critical thinking.”

Chemerisov trained as a physicist and spectroscopist and began working at the Institute of Chemical Physics in Moscow. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, neither science nor engineering seemed like viable careers in Russia anymore. As the former Soviet state apparatus melted away, funding for science dried up. Many scientists had to find new jobs in the fledgling private sector.

“At one point, I even joined a company selling computers,” he revealed.

“When I became a teenager, I felt a drive and an obligation to take on the hardest challenges I could find in order to grow. And it seemed like science required a lot of effort, ingenuity and critical thinking.” — Sergey Chemerisov, manager of accelerator operations at Argonne 

Fortunately, while working at the Institute of Chemical Physics, he had made some contacts at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. He was able to secure a post-doctoral appointment with the radiation and photochemistry group within what was then the Chemistry division.

“I thought, ​‘Maybe I will go for one year, and then come back,’” he recalled.

Nearly 30 years later, he is still at Argonne, serving as accelerator operations manager within the Experimental Operations and Facilities (EOF) division. There, he is driving transformative research in fields as diverse as radiation chemistry, nuclear medicine, novel semiconductor materials and nuclear non-proliferation. All while simultaneously leading a team of engineers charged with keeping Argonne’s Low-Energy Accelerator Facility (LEAF) and the Intermediate Voltage Electron Microscope, a national user facility and a partner facility of DOE’s Nuclear Science User Facilities, at peak performance for fellow researchers. 

An early affinity for accelerators

As part of his post-doc appointment, Chemerisov conducted research in the field of electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy. Researchers use this technique to study molecules or atoms with unpaired electrons. EPR is used to study reactions in biological and chemical systems.

When his post-doc appointment ended, Chemerisov faced yet another choice. He could find a university where he could continue his research. Or he could stay at Argonne — even if it meant changing his focus or finding a new niche. He decided to stay. Ironically, his opportunity to do so came via the particle accelerators he used to conduct his research.

“Around that same time, an opportunity arose to support the operation of LEAF” he recalled. ​“I had used accelerators for my research, but I had never truly operated them before. This was mostly a technical position — more like engineering. But it was a new challenge, and I was confident that I could do it.”

Chemerisov earned the job despite his lack of prior direct technical experience.

“Early on, we mostly performed maintenance. We made some electrical upgrades and improvements to the vacuum systems and such. But it was not quite as exciting as research,” he admitted.

It wasn’t long before Chemerisov found himself drawing on the ​“effort, ingenuity and critical thinking” that he originally believed that science required over engineering. Components within the accelerators inevitably wore out. Exact replacements were not available. He and his team had to engineer solutions on the fly that kept these facilities operating at a world-class level.

Perhaps more importantly, he discovered that by bringing a researcher’s perspective to his role as engineer, he could help the researchers who used the facilities achieve more than they otherwise would.

A researcher at heart 

Through his work at the facilities, Chemerisov has remained connected to his own passion for scientific inquiry and achievement.

He supports multiple efforts by Argonne scientists involving the research and production of medical radioisotopes, which are radiologically active atoms that doctors use to create images of the inside of your body and treat certain diseases. These are most often used in the detection, diagnosis and treatment of both cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Experiments in support of this work can be extremely challenging. As part of one particular experiment, Chemerisov and a team of scientists and engineers at Argonne developed a novel universal neutron irradiator system. This system was able to meet all the research goals of the project’s stakeholders while using less uranium and producing less waste than prior methods. Chemerisov and his team were nominated for an Argonne Impact Award for their work.

In addition to this work, Chemerisov is also involved in efforts by Argonne researchers to use photo-transmutation to create materials that can be used to make semiconductors. Photo-transmutation is the process of knocking out protons or neutrons from the nucleus of an atom using high-energy X-rays. The creation of materials with superior properties for use in or as semiconductors will help drive America’s pursuit of greater energy efficiency and help drive its innovation leadership in the field.

Finally, Chemerisov works with a private company to develop radiation-resistant camera technology for nuclear fuel inspections. This technology will simplify inspections and can be located as monitors in places that are currently impossible for inspectors to see. This reduces potential radiation exposure to humans and can provide an unprecedented level of new data to support accident prevention.

Still the same teenager 

Chemerisov says that the ​“hard challenges” still draw him out of bed and to work every day at Argonne. He finds satisfaction in passing along the scientific knowledge and engineering know-how he has accumulated over 30 years at Argonne as a mentor to those he manages.

It is a long way from selling computers in Moscow, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sergey Chemerisov’s research regarding medial radioisotopes is funded by the National Nuclear Safety Administration’s Material Management and Minimization Office and DOE Isotope Program. His work on alternative semiconductor materials is funded by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and his efforts in support of radiation-resistant camera technology is funded by the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear program.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology by conducting leading-edge basic and applied research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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