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Ask The Observer: What happens in the Radiation Research Lab?

| Monday, December 5, 2022

Written by Bella Laufenberg, with contributions from Peter Breen and Spencer Kelly.

The Radiation Research Lab is a enigmatic presence on the University’s campus. The imposing but unremarkable building, situated between Hesburgh Library and the Notre Dame Stadium, stands three stories tall on Library Lawn, mystifying many who walk past.

Nuclear Beginnings

The Radiation Research Building was built in 1963, but the lab was actually founded much earlier, going back to the time of the Manhattan Project. Dating to before the 1940s, Notre Dame was one of the pioneer universities developing their own particle accelerators.

The Observer | The Observer The front page of The Observer from Sep. 17, 1969, features the installation of “a new $250,000 linear accelerator (LINAC),” as well as the researchers who utilized it. / Courtesy of University Archives

Due to a lack of funding and resources, Notre Dame physicists George Collins and Edward Coomes, along with electrical engineering professor Jose Caparo set out to build their own particle accelerator in 1935. This large piece of machinery, formerly known as an “atom smasher,” was housed in the Cushing Hall of Engineering, which is today combined with the Fitzpatrick Hall of Engineering near DeBartolo Hall. 

In 1941, a second particle accelerator was constructed in the Science Hall — which is now the basement of LaFortune Student Center — and the third was placed in the then-newly built Nieuwland Hall in 1935. However, the second particle accelerator’s completion coincided with the start of World War II, so it was quickly noticed by the U.S. government. Scientists from other universities, such as the University of Chicago, where many Manhattan Project researchers worked, came to Notre Dame to work with these high-tech accelerators. 

The researchers would take the South Shore Line train over to the University, kicking all students out of the hall while undergoing their experiments. There is debate surrounding whether the experiments were conducted under the cover of night or during the day, but it is known that the Science Hall particle accelerator was used in experiments to develop the atomic bomb. 

After the war, Notre Dame’s researchers turned to more conflict-free uses of nuclear radiation. The Radiation Lab as it is now known was first established in 1949 by researchers from the University of Chicago’s Manhattan Project lab team. Around that time at the end of the 1950s, the group went by the name “Radiation Chemistry Project.” This transformed into the “Radiation Project,” and finally, the “Radiation Lab” was born in 1960.

However, the research was still primarily based in the basement of the Science Hall, coupled with these new ventures and new leadership under Milton Burton led to the construction of the Radiation Research Building in 1963 on land that was leased from the University. 

Peaceful Transformation

After the Radiation Research Building was finished, nuclear energy research at the University exploded. This state-of-the-art lab is three stories high with a full basement useful for storing large experimental devices. It is approximately 64,000 square feet in area — larger than the White House. 

The summer 1962 edition of Notre Dame Magazine heralded the new building, saying “the construction is novel and exciting and promises to be architecturally very impressive.” 

The entire building was owned and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy until Nov. 1, 2022, when it officially became Notre Dame property. The lab still receives around $4 million of funding from the government annually. 

The Radiation Research Lab is home to three particle accelerators (one pictured here) underground outside the outer wall of the building. Peter Breen | The Observer
The Observer | The Observer The Radiation Research Lab is home to three particle accelerators (one pictured here), which are housed underground outside the outer wall of the building. / Peter Breen | The Observer

The Radiation Lab still owns and uses particle accelerators to this day, with three of them sitting just outside of the building’s outer wall underground. The accelerators, one linear and two Van de Graaff, are used to shoot radiation into samples, so scientists can then analyze the effects of the radiation in various experiments. The lab also currently owns three direct sources of radioactive material, each encased in inches of lead. 

The Observer | The Observer The Radiation Lab operates the particle accelerators from outside of the lab, where they are a safe distance away from the radiation. / Peter Breen | The Observer

Jay LaVerne, concurrent professor of physics and radiation lab researcher, explained that the University owns “at least” seven particle accelerators in total at this point in time. Of the four not in the lab, three are with the department of physics and one is located a mile underground in a mine in South Dakota, in order to examine reactions without the added cosmic radiation from the sun. 

The current director of the lab, Ian Carmichael, said that although the lab houses the accelerators and other sources of radiation, it is completely safe to the public. 

“When [the accelerators] are on, the radiation is on. But when they are off, the radiation is off,” he explained. “They are not long term sources of radiation.”

Although the building is safe, and the accelerators are housed in feet of concrete and dirt, being caught next to a running accelerator is fatal, as is being exposed to the radioactive material situated in the basement. 

Bella Laufenberg | The Observer

LaVerne jokingly told The Observer that people do safely leave the building. 

“I know there is a rumor that people go into the lab and can’t get out, but that’s not true,” he assured.

He also mentioned a running joke each winter, in which some student builds a snowman outside the lab with two heads, as though it has morphed from the radiation. 

Besides what occurs outside the lab, the building is home to many famous radiation scientists like Prashant Kamat, a specialist in charge transfer processes and energy conversion, who was named one of the top 50 chemists by Research.com and ranked at 31st in U.S. chemists and 45th in the global rankings, author Rebecca Hick said in the Notre Dame announcement. During his 44 years at the University, LaVerne, who has recently been inducted into the inaugural class of Radiation Research Society Fellows, has worked on countless projects, mostly surrounding nuclear reactor safety. 

“We deal with reactors: How safe are they? Can we make them run better? Can we make them last longer? Many of the reactors that exist today are getting to the end of their lifetime. [The Department of Energy] wants to extend their lifetimes. And so, can we do that safely?” he asked. 

When questioned about how he works with nuclear reactors without being near one, LaVerne explained that they use high-pressurized cells to heat water up to reactor temperatures and, in turn, study the specific chemistry at those temperatures. 

LaVerne also has side projects where he works with radiation in space and in moon rocks, saying that he regularly communicates with companies like SpaceX, which is trying to send humans back to the moon and to Mars.

Behind the Sciences

The workhorse behind many of the major discoveries from the radiation lab is their two workshops — the scientific glassblowing shop and the machine shop

The machine shop is located in the basement of the lab. It spans two large rooms, hosting a wide variety of technical tools such as surface grinders, drill presses, saws, welding equipment, CNC technology and a CO2 laser. The projects in the shop include 3D printing, CAD design, laser engraving, machine consultation, instrument assembly and alterations.

The Observer | The Observer The machine shop works with a wide variety of materials such as wood, glass and plastics. / Peter Breen | The Observer

The shop is run by program manager Joe Admave, who is a specific kind of professional craftsman, termed a “journeyman.” He works on many different projects, both with the lab and outside of it, which is his favorite part of the job. 

“My favorite part about [the job] is that you never know what is going to walk through those doors,” he said. “It’s something new every day.”

Admave has run the shop for around 11 years now and, with agreement from LaVerne, called himself a “unicorn.”

“I’m like a jack of all trades,” he explained. “It’s very rare to find someone skilled in all of these trades nowadays.”

The glassblowing workshop, on the other hand, is located on the first floor and run by nationally renowned glassblower Kiva Ford, who has a college degree in scientific glassblowing. Like with Admave’s machine shop, Ford has been with the lab for several years and works on a huge variety of projects both within the University and nationwide. His technical workshop is home to a precision wet cut-off saw, wet belt sander, cork boring machine, ESA-P glassblowing lathe and large-scale convection oven. He creates everything from test tubes for particle detection to optical cells for dark matter research.

LaVerne noted that the shops were instrumental in a lot of major breakthroughs in the lab. 

“In order to accomplish novel science, you need to have novel science equipment,” he said. “A lot of our discoveries would not have been possible without [the shops].”

Contact Bella at [email protected]

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About Bella Laufenberg

Bella Laufenberg is a junior biological sciences major, who likes news much more than organic chemistry. She is also in the journalism, ethics and democracy minor. At The Observer, she currently serves as the Notre Dame News Editor.

Contact Bella