Jefferson Lab vies for expansion (Daily Press)

Jefferson Lab vies for expansion

An upgrade at the physics facility could give scientists a more effective tool to unlock the secrets of the building blocks of life

Daily Press
April 20, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS — The Department of Energy on Monday said the Jefferson Lab passed its first test to get money to double the energy used for its nuclear-physics research.

The lab is tied for seventh among 28 places that applied for upgrades.

"This lab will have a productive future in science well into the third decade of this century," Kyle McSlarrow, deputy secretary for the Department of Energy, told the lab's staff and a handful of elected officials.

The upgrade would double the power of the electron accelerator that runs on a circular track 25 feet underground. The increase in power — from 6 billion electron volts to 12 billion — would give scientists a clearer and more accurate picture of quarks, the fundamental building blocks of life. While chasing the elusive quark may not excite everyone, the technologies developed along the way spill over into many different areas, including national defense and health care. New techniques and equipment produced during the search can help protect Navy ships from low-flying missiles, improve the quality of MRI's and make breast cancer screening less invasive.

"It's all about the technology that you use to get there," said Raymond L. Orbach, head of the energy department's Office of Science. "The pursuit of the quark has given us things that make our lives that much better."

By leaping near the front of the line for energy department funding, the Newport News lab cleared an important first hurdle in an 18-month process that could bring in as many as 40 new full-time jobs.

If the improvement receives the final go-ahead, it could mean nearly $225 million for the Peninsula in building costs and new employees. During the construction phase, the lab would hire more than 100 contractors in addition to the 40 permanent positions. The average salary at the lab is about $80,000 a-year, including benefits. It's unclear how much money the Jefferson Lab will need to do the upgrade. It must now complete a conceptual design.

"We have campaigned for this for a long time in the scientific world," said lab director Christoph W. Leeman, who noted that if the lab receives the money construction would begin in 2006. "With the upgrade, we will be able to shed more light on the ultimate building blocks of life."

While touting the economic windfall, officials said the scientific benefits are more important.

"It's not about the 40 jobs or the 100 contractors, it's the future of science," said Newport News Mayor Joe Frank. "This is one of the premier material science facilities in the world, and this allows it to remain on the cutting edge for another two-decades."

U.S. Reps. Robert C. Scott and Jo Ann Davis and U.S. Sen. John W. Warner also attended Monday's event. They urged the lab's staff to spread the word about the military and health care discoveries made there.

"When you go out in the community, tell people what you do," Davis told the crowd of a few hundred researchers and technicians. "The more I learn, the more I get excited about it." If the Jefferson Lab receives the money, a new experimental hall would be built with high-grade detectors to analyze the effect of the electrons on the nucleus of atoms, and the lab's computer-processing technology would be improved.

The energy department also recognized the lab, which acts as a type of scientific incubator, where 140 of the nations Ph.D's in nuclear physics have spent time training.

"One of the best measures of your success is that Thomas Jefferson is the place that the best and brightest want to come to understand matter and energy," said the energy department's McSlarrow, who graduated from Hampton's Pheobus High School.

Workers at the lab said the more powerful accelerator would be a sharper tool to explore the boundaries of science. "It will open the door to physics that are totally new here," said Jose Goity, a theoretical nuclear physicist at the lab. "The proton is a very complex thing and this will give you a whole new set of possibilities."

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