Lab is Part of Project to Build Neutron Generator

Jefferson Lab will soon complete a $1.3 million addition to one of its buildings, the latest step in helping to build the world's strongest neutron generator, atop a Tennessee mountain ridge.

The addition, a 12,000-square-foot expansion of Building 58 will house equipment for the neutron generator, a $1.4 billion, 1.2-mile facility that six federal labs across the country will piece together by June 2006.

The end result, the Spallation Neutron Source facility, will create billions upon billions of neutrons, subatomic particles with no charge, that scientists can use as a powerful microscope to examine different materials.

It also places Jefferson Lab in a highly visible — and highly funded — spot in a national project that can spur the lab's own plans for upgrades.

"It will lead to understanding materials," said Claus H. Rode, senior team leader for the SNS project at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. "Understanding why some materials are stronger than others, how to manufacture stronger materials."

Scientists in Jefferson Lab's new addition will help build superconducting radiofrequency cavities for an energy accelerator that will be the heart of SNS. In all, the local slice of the project sums up to $65 million over 4 1/2 years.

Paid for by the U.S. Department of Energy, the SNS project will shoot protons through the accelerator's cavities to raise their energy levels. When millions of dancing protons gather, they will smash against a target, in this case liquid mercury, which contains many neutrons.

The collision knocks apart the mercury's nucleus and frees billions of neutrons at a time. Experiments are set up nearby to channel those neutrons and use them, like light beaming from a microscope, to examine objects from crystals to metals to proteins.

The facility will be able to unleash an unprecedented 360 million billion neutrons each second. On that scale, if you ticked off a neutron a second starting at the time of the Big Bang, you'd be finishing right about now.

"It's about 12 times the world's leading neutron spallation source in England," said Carl N. Strawbridge, SNS deputy project director. At its peak, "it is about 50 to 100 times the facility in France."

These accelerator-based generators are an alternative to nuclear reactors, which are a powerful neutron source but too controversial to make any political wish lists.

As the number of nuclear reactors here dimmed, other nations shone in neutron development.

"That has not gone unnoticed and not gone without disturbing some people," said Jefferson Lab Interim Director Christoph W. Leemann. "One of the declared goals is to recapture U.S. leadership in neutron science."

The project was written into the federal budget in 1998. It enlists thespecialties of not only Jefferson Lab but also Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national labs, all DOE-funded. Tennessee's Oak Ridge lab will host the facility on an 80-acre plot.

Jefferson Lab introduced the idea of making the accelerator cavities with superconducting materials, the ingredients of its own electron accelerators in Newport News. Now considered the future of accelerator technology, superconductors allow for higher energy levels without added costs or equipment, compared with the original copper base.

"Superconducting technology is going to increasingly play a role in new projects that come along," said L. Warren Funk, Jefferson Lab's SNS project services manager. "SNS is the leading edge of a wave of potential activities."

The Newport News lab also will provide a helium refrigerator to keep the superconducting accelerator cool. Jefferson Lab leaders plan to ship their entire contribution to Oak Ridge by September 2004.

Until then, the extra money is welcome for the lab, whose budget weighs entirely on congressional support each year. Already, it has allowed the lab to hire at least 50 more scientists and build the test building addition.

The project also nails down a framework for a larger planned upgrade that would double the capacity of the lab's electron accelerator over the next several years.

"This is a great opportunity. It brings a significant amount of money in the lab that we otherwise would not have had," Leemann said. "It makes certain facility improvements a necessity."