ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Students running around the track at Cornell University’s Charles F. Berman field might not realize that about five stories down there’s another track sending atoms circling – a particle accelerator. It was shut down this week for massive upgrades.
Joel Brock, Director of Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source—or CHESS—ducks under machinery to get into the tunnel of the particle accelerator.
“This is the tunnel part. Now you can see it’s round. This was bored like a subway tunnel in the early 60s and the view doesn’t change much from here on a round.”
If you could peer around the corner, you’d see a repeating pattern of huge orange and blue magnets.
The magnets steer matter around the tunnel at nearly the speed of light. Researchers harness x-rays made from the excitation of electrons to peer inside the smallest parts of an atom. For instance, companies testing material for airplanes can see where it starts to break down at the molecular level.
Brock’s been with Cornell since 1989, long enough to see some changes.
“Back in the old days, using film, you had to take a photograph. We had a dark room. People used to come work for a week, and now it’s like four or five hours to do the whole thing and they leave with a solved structure. So, yeah, the world has changed since 1980.”
Back then, when this was used for particle collisions, electrons and positrons circling in different directions would crash into each other revealing all the different molecular parts that make up matter, but that kind of research hasn’t happened at Cornell since 2008.
The upgrades will take out a sixth of the ring that was geared more for particle collisions and fine tune it for x-rays, in part, by adding more undulators which excite electrons. It will also send positrons in the same direction.
The project is funded by New York State. Brock said without the upgrades, they wouldn’t be relevant.
“We wouldn’t be internationally competitive anymore and we’d lose our funding. Right now, CHESS is funded by the National Science Foundation as a national user facility. The foundation wants world class facilities. We have to be the best use of the taxpayers money, which means, every five to ten years, we have to upgrade to stay at the forefront.”
A $15-million state grant funds 150 jobs at Cornell. It’s hoped additional people will be hired by the New York manufacturers who are providing most of the materials. The upgrades should be done early next year.
The university is developing a new type of particle accelerator which is more energy efficient. Brock calls it the future of particle accelerators.
Correction: Cornell expects to retain 150 jobs with funding from NYS. An earlier version of this story said 290 jobs. The Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based ScienceS and Education currently employs 290 people.