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Jenkins blesses particle accelerator

Katy McCarty | Friday, November 2, 2012

University President Fr. John Jenkins dedicated and blessed the new SU Pelletron nuclear particle accelerator Thursday, calling the occasion “a great step for Notre Dame.” The dedication ceremony was held on the first level of the new 4-level space within Nieuwland Science Hall that houses the accelerator. In attendance was physics professor Michael Wiescher, who played a key role in bringing the accelerator to Notre Dame and has worked in the department for 27 years.

There are two other accelerators within the facility, but the new one has a “much more intense beam,” Wiescher said.

“The accelerator is designed to test conditions at the center of sun, stars and supernova explosions,” he said.

The tank that houses the accelerator was installed in Oct. 2011, and the actual accelerator was installed in March. The four-story tall instrument had to be lowered into its new home on the top of Nieuwland Science Hall by helicopter. In total, the accelerator cost about $8 million, $4 million from a National Science Foundation grant. The University paid the remainder for the necessary modifications for Nieuwland to house the new accelerator. The first beam from the accelerator was produced in April 2012, and since then, research has been under way.

When asked about the South Bend community’s reaction on the project, Wiescher said concerns should be tempered by the fact the accelerator has a “number of applications.”

“This accelerator is widely used for research on cancer treatments, smoke detectors, fire alarms, climate monitoring and is used extensively in archaeology and history,” he said.

In addition, the machine can also be used to research nuclear waste.

“The particles from the accelerator can help scientists tell how slowly nuclear waste will degrade in a shorter amount of time than traditional methods,” research faculty member Daniel Robertson said.

This accelerator is one of five of its kind in the world, and the project is sustainable. When describing the accelerator, Robertson said it is “lower energy but more versatile” than the other accelerators in the laboratory.

Furthermore, 20 to 30 universities around the world are involved in the project, sending user groups to campus from countries such as Brazil, Mexico and China.

“International groups do experiments here, and we try to encourage international participation,” he said.

The instrument has complex machinery that starts with an ion source, which accelerates charged particles and shoots them through a gas. Then there is a nuclear reaction in the gas, which forms new elements and mimics how energy is made within the sun, stars and supernovas. The instrument runs a test that models the change in elemental components of the center of the stars, and then compares the data to observations of the actual center of stars’ make-up.