Beaming with Power

Jefferson Lab Administrators Want to Upgrade Electron Beam Accelerator

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility wants a $150 million upgrade to double the power of its electron beam accelerator, a project many experts consider among the top four nuclear science endeavors in the country.

Administrators expect to know by the end of the year how close they are to getting approval for the project. The lab's accelerator revs up electrons and shoots them into other materials at nearly the speed of light. These particle projectiles allow scientists to essentially see the tiny structure of atoms, and a more-powerful beam of electrons would make it possible to delve even deeper, said Christoph Leemann, Jefferson Lab interim director.

"As you crank the power up, you start to see a higher-resolution image," he said.

That would be a boon for the scientific community, said James Symon of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. He chairs the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee.

"We have known for a long time that the nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons; we also believe that the protons and neutrons are themselves made up of quarks and gluons, and we have a theory that describes their properties," he said. "The upgrade will enable us to test some very specific predictions of this theory with unprecedented sensitivity. If we find what has been predicted, then we have confidence that we are on the right track in understanding subnuclear physics. If not, the theorists will have to go back to the drawing board."

Jefferson Lab's proposed upgrade comes because of recommendations from the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee, which advises the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation on the national.

This year, the energy department and science foundation have a combined budget of about $400 million at its disposal to fund research. The Nuclear Science Advisory Committee's current recommendations list four priorities, and Jefferson Lab was part of two of them. The first recommends simply that research continue at Jefferson Lab and other research facilities.

The fourth recommendation is to provide money for the Jefferson Lab power boost, which would increase the speed of its electron beam from 99.99999965 percent the speed of light up to 99.99999991 percent.

The facility already uses enough juice to power 16,000 homes. The upgrade would mean doubling that.

Revving up the particles will mean adding 80 new devices to the center's existing 338 superconducting tools, as well as building a new experiment hall to join the facility's existing three.

"We just stuff the tunnel completely," Leemann said. "It's basically small additions to what we have and beefing up what we have."

Of course, all that depends on the decision that's expected to come out at the end of the year. That's when the Department of Energy will decide which proposed projects are critical to fund. That recommendation gets sent to the federal Office of Management and Budgets, and ultimately, to Congress.

If all goes well, Jefferson Lab could receive money for preliminary engineering studies in 2003 and know if full funding is likely by 2004.

By 2005, the money would be on the way, and construction could start in 2006 or 2007. It would take about four years to build the additions.

"Being in the plan doesn't give you the money yet," Leemann said. "We know it will be a constant effort from now on to actually get it. I think we have a good outlook."

— Michael Hines can be reached at 247-4760 or by e-mail at mhines@dailypress.com.