Energy Technologies Area Early History

Ernest Orlando Lawrence arrived at the University of California’s Berkeley campus in the summer of 1928. He was 27 years old. From the beginning, he began crossing entrenched disciplinary lines, bringing scientists, engineers, and students from a variety of disciplines together, setting the pattern for the unique laboratory he created. By 1930, he built his first cyclotron, and by 1939 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention. As the story goes, when his grand ideas would no longer fit on UC Berkeley's main campus, officials granted the land in the hills, as it was not seen as valuable at the time. Throughout the next decades, Lawrence founded his Radiation Laboratory, moved his growing laboratory to the Berkeley hills location, and, eventually, died in August 1958. Edwin McMillan took over his post as director and the Lab was renamed Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. 

1920s - Precursor events 

1928 - Ernest Orlando Lawrence comes to Berkeley Physics Department, invents cyclotron


Lawrence designs his first cyclotron, which is 5 inches in diameter.
first-cyclotron-5-inch copy.jpg

1930s - Radiation Laboratory is established and eventually moves to the Berkeley Hills

Aug 26, 1931 - Lawrence founds the Radiation Laboratory

Ernest Lawrence founds the Radiation Laboratory (Rad Lab) on the Berkeley Campus housed in the former Civil Engineering Testing Laboratory.

July 1, 1936 - Lab becomes University of California Radiation Lab

University of California establishes the University of California Radiation Lab as an independent entity within the University of California Berkeley Physics Department.            

1939 - Lab starts moving into Berkeley Hills

Lawrence starts moving the Lab onto University property in the Berkeley Hills to construct the 184-inch cyclotron.

1940s - The war and atomic science

1942 - Participation in war effort    

The Lab devotes full attention to the war effort.

1946 - Construction of the 184-inch cyclotron is completed


January 1947 - Atomic Energy Commission established

The Atomic Energy Commission was established by Harry Truman to take over nuclear-related research from the military.

1950s - Livermore Laboratory splits off and Ernest Lawrence dies

1953 - Livermore becomes second site

Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller establish a second site at Livermore.            

1954 - Charles Tobias Arrives

The founding father of electrochemical engineering establishes the Electrochemical Research Program at Berkeley Lab, the first to apply strict scientific methods to this area of research. This innovation ultimately provides the basis for ETA’s Energy Storage & Distributed Resources Division and cements a long-standing research collaboration with UC Berkeley.

mcmillan-later.jpgAugust 27, 1958 - Lawrence dies, Edwin McMillan takes over

Ernest Lawrence dies of ulcerative colitis at the age of 57. Edwin McMillan is appointed Lab director.

1959 - Lab named after Lawrence

University of California Regents change the name of Lab to Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

1960s - Origins of Building 90 and Energy and Environment Division

1960s - Environmental Awareness

Berkeley Lab starts the transition to energy and environment-related research that is much more applied than its previous research, opening a new swath of science that becomes prominent and very important to researchers and the public in the coming decades.

1960s - Construction begins on Building 90


1960s - Building 90 opens for business (administrative functions only initially)

Building 90 later becomes the home of much of the Energy Technologies Area. Today, ETA fills not only Building 90 but a occupies space in a number of other buildings at Berkeley Lab.


1960s - Next-gen Solid State and Sodium-Ion Batteries

Groundbreaking work enables materials researchers worldwide to develop new battery chemistries and materials, including next-gen solid state and sodium-ion batteries. This research contributes to the optimization of every battery produced since, from cell phones to cars to microgrids.

1963 - Tihomir (Tica) Novakov arrives at the Lab

Tihomir Novakov arrives at the Lab, later becoming part of the Energy and Environment department, and then the leader of the Environmental Research Program for many years. Novakov coins the term black carbon by the 1970s, pioneering the now-massive field of research on the nature and impacts of carbonaceous aerosols in the environment, inspiring many.

1968 - Origins of Energy and Environment

In the fall, Andy Sessler (Physics Division) holds a meeting of 15-20 people to talk about environmental problems that the Lab might address. Jack Hollander (Nuclear Chemistry Division) was the only attendee who expressed an interest.  

November 5 - Richard Nixon is elected president