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America's accelerator future

Director of the DOE Office of Science William Brinkman addresses the Accelerators for America's Future symposium in Washington, DC.

Director of the DOE Office of Science William Brinkman addresses the Accelerators for America's Future symposium in Washington, DC.

The next big thing in particle accelerators may not be so big, and it might not have anything to do with research into the subatomic secrets of the universe. Instead it could offer a better way to slice silicon into chips, treat cancer, stop terrorist attacks, tap new sources of energy, reduce the world’s growing burden of nuclear waste or turn air pollutants into fertilizer.

More than 400 people are in Washington, DC, this week to draw up a list of possibilities for the Office of High Energy Physics in the DOE's Office of Science, which builds and operates America’s major research accelerators and funds research on accelerator technology. Called “Accelerators for America’s Future,” it kicked off Monday with an all-day symposium and continued Tuesday and today with invitation-only working groups focusing on industrial applications and production, national security, energy and the environment, medicine and biology, and discovery science. They'll report their findings later.

What the Office of Science hopes to get from all this is a sense of what these various accelerator users need, both now and in the future; the major cost, technical and policy barriers they face; which areas of accelerator R&D hold the most promise; and how to bridge what one speaker called “the valley of death” between basic research and deploying a new technology, according to Dennis Kovar, associate director of the Office of Science for High Energy Physics. (You can find slides from his talk and other presentations here. )

Most of the public buzz about accelerators these days is focused on the Large Hadron Collider, the big underground ring beneath the Swiss-French border that will bring particles into collision with seven times more energy than any machine before. Although it will ramp up much more slowly than expected due to an accident last year that did considerable damage to its magnets, crews there injected particles into the collider last Friday and Saturday and are on track to restart in November. And the accomplishments of other research accelerators are well known, from revealing the constituents of the atom and the forces that hold them together to creating more than 25 new chemical elements, investigating high-temperature superconductors, and creating conditions in the laboratory that have not existed since shortly after the big bang.

But behind the scenes, smaller and more modest accelerators have been cutting big swaths through the lives of ordinary Americans.

For instance, “The argument’s been made that accelerators have saved more lives than any other biomedical device,” with an estimated 10,000 of them being used to treat cancer, Tom Katsouleas of Duke University told the audience.

More than 18,000 industrial accelerators have been built over the past half-century and most of them are still in use, according to a commentary by Robert W. Hamm in the Oct 09 issue of symmetry; they sterilize medical supplies, analyze materials, toughen the rubber in tires, play a key role in manufacturing the semiconductor chips at the hearts of electronic devices, and even create shink-wrap, among many other things.

Meanwhile, work at synchrotron lightsources--accelerator rings that produce bright beams of X-rays--has illuminated the structures of the rhinovirus that causes colds and 50,000 of the proteins that carry out critical functions in every living thing; how nerve cells function and insects breathe; and, after a 30-year-struggle, the structure of the ribosome, an exceeding complex snarl of molecules within our cells that builds proteins based on instructions encoded in DNA. That last discovery earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for three biologists this year, and in fact lightsources have become all-purpose tools for research in a number of fields.

None of this would have been possible without advances in accelerator technology that went hand-in-hand with basic research, said Maury Tigner of Cornell University, who is leading the working group focused on discovery science: “This is really a case of science driving technology driving science driving technology, which is the way that most of these sciences go forward.” He likened accelerators to modern ships of discovery: “They take us where we cannot go unaided, enable us to see what we cannot see unaided.”

In today’s economic climate, however, it’s especially challenging to make the case that the technology and the basic science are worth supporting, not only for the discoveries they enable but for the role they play in driving innovation and keeping America competitive.

That challenge came into sharp focus earlier this month at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment of the House Science and Technology Committee; the American Institute of Physics’ FYI bulletin summarizes the main points here. Chairman Brian Baird of Washington, who is considered a strong supporter of science, said US tax dollars allocated to research facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider and other “big gizmos” could have been used to address pressing societal needs, and asked scientists how they could justify those expenditures.

“All of us in this room need to help answer those questions,” Fred Dylla, executive director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics, told the symposium on Monday.

William Brinkman, director of the DOE's Office of Science, said new approaches are needed to bring down the cost of accelerators and create new paths to discovery.

“I believe we’re pushing hard on the limits of conventional accelerators today,” he said. With the proposed International Linear Collider estimated to cost on the order of $20 billion, “It’s starting to get to the point where the scientific community can’t afford these things.”

Brinkman cited several promising approaches that DOE-funded researchers are investigating, including a muon-muon collider, superconducting radiofrequency cavities for propelling particles along, and plasma wakefield acceleration, which has been shown to accelerate electrons to high energies in very short distances. (See “Crashing the size barrier” in the Oct 09 symmetry.) Although plasma wakefield acceleration is still a decade away from practical use, several speakers mentioned it as a promising development that could greatly decrease the cost and size of future accelerators for research, medicine and other applications.

Monday’s keynote talk was given by Norman Augustine, the retired chairman CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. and chairman of the committee that produced the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future for the National Academies of Science.

While the DOE is now on track to double its budget after decades of relatively flat funding for physical sciences, he said, much of this year’s increase came in the form of one-shot stimulus funding. “That implies, of course, that we’re going to fall off a cliff in about a year--the asteroid is going to hit--if we don’t make the case” that the physical sciences are critical for research in all fields, Augustine said.

With industry cutting back on basic research and universities facing draconian budget cuts, he said, it’s more important than ever for the government to fund university research and maintain federal laboratories that can deal with large-scale problems, perform high-risk research, build large facilities, plan for the long term and foster research that cuts across disciplines.

“If science is the keystone to the quality of life in the future, that’s a message we need to convey,” Augustine said. “I think it’s important to point out how broadly that impact is felt. People take for granted their iPods, their GPS, their laptops. Most don’t realize that it was people years ago, working in the field of quantum mechanics, that made all this possible.”