Tiny Machines Hold Big Dreams:

Jefferson Lab Scientists Hope for State Funds

More than $65 million worth of equipment — used to help create atom-sized machines that could one day make anything from new cells to celery — might just sit idling if state lawmakers and Gov. Jim Gilmore can't agree on a budget for the state.

Officials with the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility hope the state will pass a budget amendment that includes money to build a two-story, 20,000-square-foot addition to the free-electron laser facility. The $3 million addition would house a $32 million synchotron and $36 million X-ray camera.

Researchers will use that equipment to help build nanotechnology, microscopic machines that could theoretically build anything from medicine to food. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

But the Gilmore administration has found about $103.3 million to offset the $421 million hole in the state budget, and the governor has hinted he may not reconvene the General Assembly to hammer out a budget agreement. That means none of those amendments may be funded.

If that happens, the synchotron will remain in the Applied Research Building, which is too far from other equipment and too small to conduct experiments, said Fred Dylla, Jefferson Laboratory's free-electron laser program manager.

"If he doesn't call the session, then we're dead for a year," he said. "Had there not been the budget impasse on the car tax, this would have passed."

That would mean pushing back nanotechnology studies and other research, all made possible by the synchotron and the X-ray camera, the equivalent of a copy machine for atoms.

The synchotron would do two things: Allow researchers to see how atoms interact and act as an X-ray printing press to produce nano-sized microchips.

The laboratory's free-electron laser allows researchers to conduct a variety of experiments at atomic levels, so hooking it to the synchotron was a logical decision for Gwyn Williams, basic research program manager who headed efforts to acquire a synchotron.

The machine creates X-ray radiation -- about 1 million times the brightness of X-rays used in hospitals.

"You need that much light in order to light up a collection of a few atoms," he said.

That's because to see atoms, scientists must magnify them. Magnification means looking at smaller and smaller areas, which means less and less light is available.

For nanotechnology, scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University would provide nano-sized microchip patterns cut into gold. The synchotron would provide the X-ray light needed for the camera to copy those designs onto nano-sized pieces of silicon.

"It's like a flash lamp," Williams said of the synchotron. "They're making the negatives, and we're making the prints."

That process would move researchers away from the current way of making microchips, a process that essentially whittles away at a larger silicon wafer, said Amber Jones, National Science Foundation spokeswoman.

"Instead of taking an existing product and making it smaller and smaller, nanotechnology takes it the other way around," she said. "The synchotron is a piece of equipment that's used to see at that smallness."

Williams said Jefferson Lab is one of the few places in the country that can operate the machine, Williams said.

IBM donated its synchotron to the facility last fall. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is donating the X-ray equipment, which will arrive as soon as the synchotron is operating.

In all, including the building, equipment and work to make it function, the set-up would be a $74.75 million investment.

What is a synchotron?

A synchotron is a smaller version of a particle accelerator. As electrons zip through the machine, they give off X-ray radiation. That light acts much like a flash lamp, allowing a special camera to pick up items on the atomic scale.