Jefferson Lab Gets New Funds (Washington Bureau/Daily Press)

Jefferson Lab Gets New Funds

$35 million will support physics project in Tenn.

The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News has been awarded $35 million in new federal funding over the next two years to help build a major physics project in Tennessee that officials say will produce the world's most powerful neutron beams.

The Department of Energy project, called the Spallation Neutron Source, promises to use neutrons to redesign all kinds of materials, making them stronger, cheaper, lighter and more durable.

Commercial applications of the new work could produce everything from stronger plastics to more efficient motors and new medicines, according to the Energy Department. The project is scheduled to be built at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and open in 2006.

For Jefferson Lab, the new work in neutron science will add about 40 employees to the local payroll and swell its annual budget of about $70 million. The federally funded lab at Oyster Point, which studies atomic particles, has a work force of about 500.

The decision to funnel money to Jefferson Lab was made by the Clinton administration, which allowed Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., to announce the plan Wednesday. Robb faces re-election in November.

"I am pleased that the Department of Energy has recognized Jefferson Lab's position as our nation's leading laboratory with expertise in superconducting technologies," Robb said in a statement.

The local lab will be one of six national laboratories across the country with a hand in building a $1.4 billion project aimed partly at restoring U.S. leadership in neutron science.

Jefferson Lab's role, however, has yet to be finalized, and the announcement caught local lab officials off guard. A memorandum of understanding outlining the role of the Newport News lab is expected to be signed next month, said Christoph Leemann, associate director of the lab's accelerator division.

The lab is scheduled to receive $10 million this year for the project and the remaining $25 million in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Ultimately, Leemann said, plans call for Jefferson Lab to receive a total of about $70 million over the next four years to help complete the project.

The Spallation Neutron Source, which has been on the drawing boards since at least 1997, is expected to attract 1,000 to 2,000 scientists and engineers from around the world each year.

The facility will produce powerful beams of neutrons -- uncharged elementary particles -- that can be used, in effect, to re-engineer basic materials at the atomic level. Those materials -- used in everything from computers to automobiles -- would become stronger or lighter or longer-lasting or otherwise improved.

The beams are produced by bombarding a mercury target with protons -- elementary particles that carry a positive charge of electricity. The resulting reaction, called spallation, releases neutrons that are formed into beams.

Although the technology is not new, the facility at Oak Ridge is expected to produce the most powerful form of neutron beams in the world, offering new opportunities in both basic research and commercial applications.