IU Attracts Huge Project

Superconducting magnet weighing 250 tons will be refurbished at cyclotron facility

Fourteen trucks rolled into Bloomington on Wednesday carrying a 250-ton superconducting magnet that will spend the next two years being refurbished at the IU Cyclotron Facility.

As monstrous as the magnet is, it's just one part of a multiyear project being led by physicists at Indiana University.

Called GlueX, the project is a collaboration by more than 100 scientists at 24 institutions in the United States, Australia, Canada, Poland, Russia and Scotland. It includes building an entire new hall at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va., where the experiment will be carried out.

All this massive effort in search of a quarry that's unimaginably tiny: a family of subatomic particles whose existence has been predicted by physics theory but not yet confirmed.

"We're looking for a so-called new kind of matter call exotic mesons," said Alex Dzierba, an IU physics professor and spokesman for the project.

The project was launched in 1997 in a conference at IU and refined at follow-up meetings. Participants were brought on board, plans were made and duties allocated to groups of scientists. The project will cost more than $100 million, with most of the funding coming from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The goal is to produce a powerful photon beam that will bombard atomic nuclei and force them to reveal secrets of how they are held together.

Dzierba said the physicists decided the right accelerator magnet to power the experiment already existed: It's a 30-year-old device that was built at Stanford University, then moved for later work to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"We realized this magnet was essentially custom-built for what we needed," he said.

Custom-built, but not equipped with up-to-date electronics and computer controls. But while experimental physics research is being phased out at the IU Cyclotron Facility — it's being converted to a medical facility to provide proton therapy treatment — the staff and scientists there are the right people to refurbish the magnet and bring it into the 21st century, Dzierba said.

"It turns out that the expertise exists at the cyclotron," he said. "This is a perfect match."

Plans call for eventually bringing additional components of the new accelerator facility to Bloomington and assembling them to make sure they will work before shipping them to Virginia for the experiment.

Besides Dzierba, an experimental high-energy physicist, participants include IU professors Adam Szczepaniak, coordinator of the GlueX theory group; and Geoffrey Fox, a physicist and computer scientist who directs its Community Grids Lab. Also involved from IU are staff scientist Scott Teige, electronics engineer Paul Smith and technician Eric Scott.

It's a long-term commitment. Dzierba said running the experiment will produce a petabyte of data — a million gigabytes — keeping scientists busy with analysis for a decade or so.

Working from physics theory called quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, physicists will scrutinize the data in an effort to understand the force that prevents the freeing of subatomic quarks, thought to be the basic building blocks of matter. By searching for evidence of subatomic particles called exotic hybrid mesons, scientists are trying to tie up experimental loose ends in the theory, Dzierba said.

"The theory is so successful in other ways," he said. "If we find that none of these things are there, it means we don't really understand the nuclear force at all."

Dzierba said there are no immediate practical applications for the research, but understanding how matter is put together is a necessary step to finding ways to put it to work.

"The history has been, consistently, when you do things at a fundamental level it's not clear what the practical application is," he said. "But 20 years down the line, lo and behold, there are practical applications."