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Secretary Chu participating at the recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Scientific Forum in Vienna, Austria | Photo courtesy of Dean Calma/IAEA

Secretary Chu participating at the recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Scientific Forum in Vienna, Austria | Photo courtesy of Dean Calma/IAEA

Decades ago, Steven Chu, a young researcher at Bell Labs working on atomic physics, developed a method to use lasers to trap individual atoms. In 1997, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this research.

Typical of basic science research, Secretary Chu did not know all of the practical applications that his discovery might have beyond possibly developing an improved atomic clock. But years later, scientists are now using this research in the hopes of accomplishing something completely different: mapping groundwater flow to predict how fast permeable rock that contains or transmits groundwater will refill. This task is challenging, but especially important in developing regions around the world where water is scarce.

Cataloguing underground waterways, some of which extend for thousands of miles, has always been difficult, but scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, with colleagues from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are mapping them with the help of Secretary Chu’s atom trap. Secretary Chu spoke earlier this week at the IAEA’s Science Forum in Vienna about the importance of supporting science and technology to address the global water challenge.

Click here for Argonne National Laboratory’s feature on the promising work that’s being conducted.