Jefferson Lab beam facility dedicated, future impact celebrated

Big things are expected out of the recently upgraded Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at Jefferson Lab, even if what exactly will be discovered by the 1,600 scientists using the facility is not yet known.

On Wednesday, many who supported the $338 million upgrade toured the facility and spoke at a dedication ceremony.

The upgrade tripled the operating energy of the facility, a user facility of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science — essentially, it is the most powerful microscope in the world for studying the atomic nucleus.

Paul Dabbar, the under secretary of energy, talked about physicist Ernest Rutherford who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908 for work that was the basis of nuclear fission.

“No one knew where that piece of chemistry would go,” he said. “The whole nuclear industry and all the derivatives and everything that we’re talking about here today came from that little piece of knowledge.”

Dabbar said that likewise, no one knew where the research done at the accelerator facility today would lead, but he knew it would go to something important.

One of the base questions the scientists are tackling is, why are quarks — the particles that make up protons and neutrons — never found alone?

David Lawrence, a physicist in the recently built Hall D, said understanding how the glue holding quarks together would help scientists understand how matter in the universe is held together. The GlueX experiment tests the theory that the gluons holding quarks together can change the properties of the quarks when the gluons are excited.

To excite the gluons, electron beams are fired at them, and the scientists at the facility collect the data.

Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, asked Lawrence if there was a practical application for this experiment yet. Lawrence said the work involved has led to other ideas and experiments, but they were not at the point for coming up with direct applications.

He compared where the research was currently to where Benjamin Franklin was as he tinkered with electricity. Lawrence said guessing the applications now would be like asking Franklin to predict the iPhone.

Lawrence and other scientists led the tour through different parts of the facility, concrete bunkers containing a jungle of wires and tubes and chambers, built into the ground.

After the tour, Stuart Henderson, director of Jefferson Lab, compared the upgrade to the completion of an aircraft carrier or a submarine, proudly pointing out that the work was completed on time and on budget.

The upgrade project started in 2004 when the Department of Energy recognized that, in order to fill a critical “mission need” in nuclear physics, the accelerator facility would need to double its operating energy to 12 billion electron-volts, or 12 GeV.

By 2014, the accelerator complex and the civil construction were completed, and the Department of Energy gave its final approval of the facility in October 2017. The 1,600 users of the facility from all over the world cycle through over days, weeks and months, taking turns to use the beam for their experiments.

Jefferson Lab has stated that the new, higher-energy electron beams provide “the cleanest probes of nuclear matter at the highest intensities ever achieved, enabling precision experiments that were once thought beyond our reach for deepening our understanding of nuclear matter.”

During his remarks, Scott drew laughs when he recalled the facility’s original name would be Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Research Facility. The acronym would’ve been CEBARF, so “research” was dropped from the name.

He advocated for continued support of science funding by lawmakers, saying, “If the United States wants to remain a leader in the scientific community, we have to make investments like this.”

Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia Beach, joked that he knew why quarks were never found on their own, but he wanted the scientists to use their new facility to figure it out on their own. He said he was glad for the bipartisan support in the state for Department of Energy funding to support the accelerator facility.

Nadia Fomin, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, researched at Jefferson Lab and has brought students from Tennessee to do the same. She thanked supporters of Jefferson Lab who see the importance of the work done there.

To maintain support, she said the scientists had to do their part and show their enthusiasm for what they do and share it with the people they know outside of the lab. She highlighted the outreach the lab does with students, some of whom may be inspired to pursue science or become engineers or even just “go home and tell their parents about the cool things that they saw at their neighborhood, world-class accelerator facility.”

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