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. 

In 2012, Crabtree switched gears professionally when he was named director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.  

​“In the later stage of his career, George was deeply passionate about fighting climate change, and used all his skills to encourage conversations and solutions,” Trahey said. 

As director, Crabtree oversaw experiments on a wide range of beyond lithium-ion battery chemistries, including redox flow batteries and multivalent batteries. 

Colleagues described his leadership style as full of kindness and curiosity. ​“​He was never afraid to ask a question, and he treated 19-year-old students and heads of state with equal respect,” Trahey said. “He wanted to learn and explore and also have a positive impact on society — he was unlimited in what he wanted to learn if it could help him communicate challenges and inspire people.” 

‘He cared about more than just work’

Argonne materials scientist Wai-Kwong Kwok recalled camping trips that Crabtree would organize for the other scientists in Argonne’s materials science division and their families. ​“He’d be the one up before everyone else making breakfast by the campfire,” he said. ​“In everything, he was truly an endearing person; he cared about more than just work, and his optimism and his hope would just rub off on you.”  

“I never could have imagined when I first came to Argonne as an undergraduate student that one day I would be directing a big energy storage hub,” Crabtree said recently. ​“That was the farthest thing from my mind. Now I consider that to be one of my best experiences.” 

“George was a leader in many Basic Energy Science advisory committee studies and BES workshops. He helped to identify priority research directions for basic science from grand challenges for discovery research to foundations for energy technologies. These reports have literally shaped the 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. ​“He was a true renaissance scientist — impacting many disciplines across energy and condensed matter physics. He will be greatly missed by the Department of Energy community.” 

In addition to his work in JCESR, Crabtree also served as co-chair of Argonne’s Action Collaborative, a group of researchers and administrators dedicated to eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace.  

​“George cared about making work and life better, more inclusive and more fair for everyone,” Trahey said. ​“He was someone who believed in you and inspired you to believe in yourself.” 

Crabtree was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the National Academy of Sciences. 

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, a stepson and three grandchildren. 

—Adapted from an obituary published by Argonne National Laboratory