Unless you looked at Jefferson Lab's electricity bill, you'd likely have no idea that underground, just off busy Jefferson Avenue in Newport News, scientists for the past few weeks have been painstakingly firing up a machine that could unlock the secrets of the universe.
You won't see any black holes forming and sucking all of existence into oblivion. You won't hear a peep as a beam with 6 billion electron volts of concentrated energy traveling at nearly the speed of light collides like a freight train into targets to give clues into how matter is made.
Last week anxious scientists from across the planet, some waiting for years, were chomping at the bit to get their chance to harness the power of the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, better known as Jefferson Lab.
Jefferson Lab's CEBAF is a powerful machine that is fired a couple times a year for months at a time to give scientists access to the electron beam in order to smash it into things and study the resulting interactions.
But before the scientists get their chance with the beam, JLab employees first must turn the machine on, a process that began in September. Powering up the accelerator is a massive undertaking that takes weeks of fine tuning, dozens of highly trained scientists, engineers and computer technicians, and complex levels of organization and cooperation.
JLab allowed Inside Business to observe the process during two separate trips to the facility earlier this month.
Most of the action takes place in massive underground facilities closed to humans once the process gets going. The beam itself is created within a machine appropriately called the gun. The beam is then injected into the accelerator, a racetrack-like loop nearly a mile around that increases the power of the beam with each lap. It takes 4.7 microseconds for the beam to go around the track one time. The beam itself is 100 microns in diameter, about 1 millimeter or the diameter of a human hair. At the end of the track are three underground experimental halls into which the beam can be diverted and fed at different levels of energy simultaneously through the beam switchyard, a characteristic unique among accelerators.
It is in those halls where the anxious scientists, called users, have their experiments set up and waiting for the beam to collide with their targets. This time around CEBAF will be up and running for about 26 weeks, less than normal because of budget constraints. The beam is typically funded to fire for about 33 weeks, according to Andrew Hutton, director of CEBAF.
It is certainly not cheap to operate an electron beam accelerator. Hutton gave a ballpark estimate for the tab of its 26 weeks in the on position.
"I reckon if you think in the $30 million range you're not far wrong," Hutton said.
The users waiting in line for access to the beam are consuming research dollars from various entities around the world.
Time is tighter than ever this year because CEBAF will be shut down for about a year starting in 2012 or 2013 for an upgrade that will double the power of the beam and create a whole new range of experimental opportunities.
"We're running flat out until we get to there," Hutton said.
Users are waiting in line hoping there is enough time in the next few fire-ups of the beam to complete their experiments. A backlog already exists and the looming shutdown is "producing a level of stress we haven't seen before with the users," said Arne Freyberger, CEBAF operations director.
On a daily basis during this process, Freyberger can be found in the control room, from which all functions of the beam are monitored and manipulated.
"This is the hub," he said.
Large screens line the main wall of the control room on which is projected cryptic computer widgets tracking all of the underground mechanisms.
Since September the control room has been manned by a crew 24 hours a day and will be until it shuts down in March.
The control room crew operates quietly and efficiently around the clock and doesn't often get rowdy, Freyberger said.
"If it's exciting, we have problems," he said.
Things can and do go wrong, but are typically not catastrophic, handled with the push of a few buttons on a keyboard.
"He's not going to jump up and cheer," Freyberger said of one of the scientists manning the controls who fixed a problem in the early stages of the startup. "It's not a sedate approach. But we've been through it. There isn't much these guys haven't seen before."
The beam operators have a way of taking the cryptic data that appears on the screen and being able to visualize what is going on in the machine.
About the worst that could happen is if the beam were to burn through the pipes in which it is contained. A megawatt of energy concentrated in a beam can easily burn through the stainless steel pipes that contain the cavities.
"It will melt through in a millisecond," Freyberger said.
A burn-through is called a vacuum event. The beam would then be shut down and a crew sent in to find and repair the leak.
When one operator clapped and yelled, "We got it," it was more excitement than Freyberger expected. His joy came from the fact that they finally were able to get the beam to ride on top of radio frequency waves through more than 100 super-conducting cavities that carry it through the end of the first straightaway in the track and into the first turn where it will then enter the second straightaway or linear accelerator where it will continue to pick up speed and power.
The 24/7 process can take its toll on the crew that runs around the clock in eight-hour shifts.
Freyberger said nuclear physicists cope with stress in the workplace the same as other members of the workforce.
"There's a habit of bringing a lot of food here to help cope with that stress," he said.
Just because they are searching for the secrets of the universe doesn't mean they don't snack like any other office.
Managing an operation of this scale around the clock becomes less of science and more of a lesson in organizational management. That's where Hutton comes in.
"It's interesting that while we're doing science, it really all comes down to people, how you train them and how they feel empowered to make comments," he said. "These guys take a lot of pride in what they do."
Recognition is important to these scientists, Freyberger said.
"In this fiscal time it's very important to recognize them because we can't recognize them monetarily," he said.
Hutton said such recognition comes in the form of trusting employees with their duties.
"People have to be given the tools that make them believe they can be successful," Hutton said. "We have crew chiefs in their mid 20s left to be in charge in the middle of the night of $600 million of R&D equipment."
That sense of responsibility helps combat complacency.
"One of the big problems I have here, which you rarely hear other bosses talk about, is having to order people home because they've been here too long," Hutton said. "They live and sleep it. They really feel it's a living entity. That's what makes it work."
Inside Business, October 24, 2008