George Crabtree, widely recognized and admired as a brilliant, passionate materials scientist who led groundbreaking work in superconductivity and energy storage over the course of nearly seven decades at Argonne National Laboratory, died Jan. 23. He was 78.
Crabtree advanced a number of different disciplines and inspired colleagues and friends around the world.
In the first part of his career at the UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory, Crabtree helped pioneer early research into high-temperature superconductors. Later he turned to leadership, serving on a number of committees at the Department of Energy to shape priorities for energy research for the United States, and as the director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research and a preeminent proponent of decarbonization.
“As a scientist and a leader, George worked with true integrity and exemplified Argonne’s mission of engaging with some of the biggest challenges facing humanity,” said Argonne director Paul Kearns. “His interest in science and genuine concern for others resulted in a leadership style that was empowering and motivating to generations of colleagues. George had the exceptional ability to bring people together to achieve impactful science for our country.”
‘Fascinated by the natural world’
George Crabtree was born on Nov. 28, 1944, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and moved with his family to Illinois when he was 2.
As a boy, Crabtree was “fascinated by the natural world and sought to understand it in all of its complexity,” said JCESR research integration leader Lynn Trahey, whom Crabtree mentored for the past 10 years. “He told me that when he was young, he was just as interested in biology as physics — he was a boundless explorer.”
Crabtree first joined Argonne as an intern in 1964 while a college student at Northwestern University. He was hired full-time in 1969 while pursuing his Ph.D. in condensed matter physics at the University of Illinois Chicago, where he took night classes while working.
In the first part of his career in the last decades of the 20th century, Crabtree’s work focused on the behavior of superconducting materials, in particular their behavior in high magnetic fields. At the time, these materials were mysterious and not well understood, and their mystique held appeal for Crabtree. “For me, it was always a curiosity question,” he told the MRS Bulletin.
Crabtree helped pioneer early research into high-temperature superconductors, which were discovered in 1986. In them, he discovered new phases of superconducting vortex matter. “The properties of vortices are important because they are responsible for all the electromagnetic behavior in high-temperature superconductors that could eventually make them useful for applications,” explained Argonne materials scientist Ulrich Welp.
Crabtree’s work on superconductors gained him recognition. In 2003, Crabtree won the second ever Kammerlingh Onnes Prize, an international award given to scientists doing work in superconductivity.