George W. Crabtree, a highly influential scientist and longtime Argonne researcher whose work spanned a wide spectrum of topics ranging from superconductivity and magnetism to energy storage research, died on January 23. He was 78.
George was a widely recognized and admired physicist whose main impact was in championing the development of high temperature superconductors and energy efficient batteries.
Early Years at Argonne National Laboratory
George joined Argonne National Laboratory as an intern in 1964, while he was an undergraduate at Northwestern University. Upon graduating in 1967 with a Bachelor’s degree in science engineering, he attended the University of Washington in Seattle where he received his Master’s degree in physics in 1968. He then returned to Argonne to pursue his research in John Ketterson’s group in condensed matter physics, which formed the basis of his PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He received his PhD in 1974 and was promoted to staff physicist at Argonne that same year. His early research at Argonne in the 70’s and early 80’s employed de-Haas van Alphen measurements to map and understand the Fermi surfaces of transition metals, such as Pt, Pd, Nb and Au, and mixed valence materials such as LaSn3 and CeSn3. One major contribution of this work was the complete Fermi surface description of Nb, which is regarded as a benchmark study to this day. George became a fellow of the American Physical Society in 1984 for these contributions to the study of Fermi surfaces. Later in the 80’s George’s research focused on the electronic properties of magnetic superconductors, in particular, the co-existence of superconductivity and magnetism in ternary rare earth compounds such as ErRh4B4. He also contributed to the early characterization of numerous organic superconductors and contributed to the study of itinerant f-electron behavior in Ce- and U- based heavy Fermion superconductors.
Vortex Matter in High Temperature Superconductors:
Perhaps George’s most important contribution to our understanding of superconductivity was in the area of vortex matter. Soon after the discovery of high temperature superconductors in 1986, George held a leadership role in the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center (1992-2000) comprised of University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Argonne to investigate these new superconductors. At Argonne, he built a team of experimentalists (Ulrich Welp, Vitalii Vlasko-Vlasov, and me) and theorists (Valeri Vinokur, and Alexei Koshelev) to investigate the properties of vortex matter in these new superconductors. Vortex matter is made up of superconducting electrons circulating around tubes of magnetic flux. Vortices control the electromagnetic behavior of all type II applied superconductors. Hence, unveiling their properties is crucial for future applications. George and his team extensively investigated the magnetic field and temperature phase diagram of the 90 Kelvin superconductor YBa2Cu3O7-d with various types of induced defects and demonstrated the melting of the vortex lattice and the ubiquity of the vortex liquid state in high temperature superconductors. George also had the early foresight to apply time-dependent Ginzburg Landau simulations to study the dynamic behavior of vortices.
George received the Kamerlingh Onnes Prize with Eli Zeldov in 2003 for “pioneering and seminal experiments which elucidated the vortex phase diagram in high temperature superconductors under various conditions of disorder and anisotropy”. His general work on superconductivity, spanning several decades, also earned him the University of Chicago Award for Distinguished Performance at Argonne National Laboratory in 1982 and 1998 and U. S. Department of Energy Awards for Outstanding Scientific Accomplishment in Solid State Physics in 1982, 1985, 1995 and 1997. He was inducted to the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 and became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011. Recognizing the technological potential of high temperature superconductors, George was instrumental in help launching one of the DoE-BES funded Energy Frontier Research Centers, the Center for Emergent Superconductivity (2009-2018), which was led by Brookhaven National Laboratory with Argonne National Laboratory and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as partners. George served as the Center’s Argonne co-Director, bringing industrial partners, such as SuperPower and American Superconductors, in to collaborate on improving the performance of commercial high temperature superconductors.
Championing Energy Sciences:
George was always very enthusiastic about energy. While superconductivity serves as an efficient way to transport energy without losses, George saw the need for a broader strategy in energy research to meet the challenges of climate change. In 2005, he testified at the House Science Committee, Subcommittees on Energy and Research hearing on “Fueling the Future: On the Road to the Hydrogen Economy.” In 2019, he testified at the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Hearing to “Examine Expanded Deployment of Grid-Scale Energy Storage.” He played leadership roles in the strategic planning for DoE-BES’s Basic Research Needs programs on hydrogen, solar energy, energy storage and discovery science, including mesoscale science. “These reports have literally shaped the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) strategic planning and portfolio for the past decade,” said Harriet Kung, deputy director for Science Programs for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
From 2012 until his passing, George served as the Director of the U. S. Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), an innovation hub led by Argonne that focuses on advancing battery science and technology. As director of JCESR, George oversaw experiments on a wide range of beyond lithium-ion battery chemistries, including flow batteries, lithium-oxygen, and lithium-sulfur. As JCESR research integration officer, Lynn Trahey, said, “George saw the fight against climate change as one of the primary issues that not only defined the later stages of his career but that he took on personally.” George also served as the Director of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) Energy Initiative and as Distinguished Professor of Physics, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineering at UIC. Most recently, he received the 2022 Energy Systems Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for advancing next-generation energy systems that transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free technologies.
George was a truly exceptional scientist and leader with great foresight. He was rarely the one to turn down a request or challenge, and there were many demanded of him. His warm personality and steady demeanor and leadership in contentious scientific and management discussions invariably helped to achieve an effective consensus. He touched the lives of many and enriched their dreams. His curiosity was boundless and his humility was inspiring. When meeting George you would never hear about all his accomplishments. In the early years, as Group Leader of the Superconductivity and Magnetism Group at Argonne, he enjoyed organizing weekend camping events for his group and colleagues to foster comradery by sharing stories around the campfire. In later years, he enjoyed travelling with his wife, Barbara, and dear friends and sharing a good glass of wine with fine food over a great conversation.
George is survived by his wife Barbara; his sister, Elizabeth "Libby" Aten nee Crabtree and her husband John Aten; one stepson; one step-granddaughter and two grandchildren; and many sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law and other extended family members and friends who love him dearly. He was preceded in death by his son, Mark William Crabtree.
This obituary was written by Wai -K. Kwok, who also offered these additional links: