How do we collect information about the world around us? How do we organize it in a way that makes sense so we can improve society? Can we make improvements in science that will help other scientists in their work?
These are the questions that physics professor Dr. Mark Transtrum has dedicated his professional life to studying. “The science I’m most excited about,” said Transtrum, “is the science that enables other scientists to make discoveries.”
Particle accelerators are massive machines that accelerate elementary particles like electrons and protons to very high energies. The fast-moving electrons are then used to create X-rays, which scientists use to etch computer microchips or power medical X-ray technology for cancer patients. Transtrum is interested in particle accelerators because they enable scientists to run a myriad of experiments.
Operating these particle accelerators is very expensive and requires a lot of energy. In order for the accelerators to work, the superconductor in the machine must be cooled to the extreme temperature of 2.7°K (approximately -455°F), which is a process that takes an entire building of equipment to complete.
In coordination with scientists from other universities, Transtrum set out to create more efficient, cost-effective technology to bring these machines to additional research centers and college campuses. “It’s so expensive to run these machines that you can’t just sign up on a sign-up sheet to use them,” Transtrum said. “You actually have to prove that you’re doing critical research through competitive proposals.”
Back in 2015, a group of Transtrum’s colleagues from Cornell, researchers from the University of Chicago, and other scientists from all over the country invited him to be part of an innovative scientific collaboration. Because of the extreme cost of running experiments with particle accelerators, the group could not function without grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and they don’t typically give their multi-million-dollar grants to just anyone.
Transtrum and his group collaborated to state their claim about just how important this project would be for the world of science. Having easier and more affordable access to these machines in more locations around the country would greatly improve the research that requires these accelerators.
“NSF Science and Technology Center grants are very large collaborative grants that are extremely competitive and hard to get,” Transtrum said. He noted that many scientists spend their entire careers applying for NSF grants without success. But after working hard to plead their case, the group was successful—the grant award allowed them to create the Center for Bright Beams (CBB).
According to the CBB’s website, their goal is “to increase the intensity (‘brightness’) of beams of charged particles by a factor of 100 while decreasing the cost of key accelerator technologies.”
They hope to accomplish this by engineering accelerating cavities with different materials that would allow the superconductors to operate at higher temperatures. Because the process of cooling the superconductors is the main operating cost of the machines, the CBB wants to raise the necessary temperature to around 4.3°K (-450°F), making the machine much more affordable to power.
The success of this project will have many real world implications. Improved X-ray technology would mean major discoveries in cancer research and radiation therapies. Having better, brighter, more coherent sources would mean that doctors can give more accurately targeted therapies to patients with cancer. Better X-ray sources would also enable engineers to make smaller computer chips that make faster computers with less memory, which means more capable smartphones. There is even the possibility of new technology such as incorporating X-ray vision at international border crossings, or allowing patrolmen to see the contents of vehicles coming into the country, thus improving national security.
BYU students are also part of this critical research project. Transtrum asked Alden Pack, a PhD candidate studying computational condensed matter, to join the Center for Bright Beams. Previous to Transtrum’s invitation, the two had been conducting research together while Pack was an undergraduate. Transtrum knew that Pack would be a great addition to the team of scientists. “My work is in superconductor activity,” Pack said. “Even before the Center was made, I had been doing that as an undergrad and as a graduate student, so I had a great skillset to bring to the group.”
Pack is excited to be part of the project because of the implications it brings to the real world of science. “I’ve always been a person who enjoys reducing energy costs, so the idea that you can reduce costs, increase accessibility, and conserve energy…is what gets me most excited,” he said.
Though the CBB is headquartered in New York, Pack and a number of other students have created a software environment research center in the BYU Fulton Supercomputing Lab. Using complex software, the students participate remotely in the Center for Bright Beams project based in New York by running computer simulations of defects found in the superconductors used in real particle accelerators. Collectively, the students are trying to find out how the defects limit the maximum magnetic field that superconductors can withstand. After gathering the information, the students report their results back to the scientists at the CBB, who then use those results to determine what defects they should focus on eliminating.
“One of the goals for the CBB is…[raising] that operating temperature and eliminat[ing] the need for these entire buildings of cooling systems,” Pack said. Having smaller facilities at more universities means that the research “will cost less…and will accelerate research in many, many fields.”
Transtrum is still working to answer the fundamental questions regarding how to collect information about the world, how to organize that information, and whether we can make improvements in science that will help scientists in their work. Because of the scarcity of particle accelerators, there are many untapped scientific discoveries just waiting to be made. With the help of the NSF Science and Technology Center grant, the work that Transtrum, Pack, BYU undergraduate students, and the Center for Bright Beams are doing could lead to innovations that will improve scientific processes.
One thing is for sure, Transtrum’s research with the CBB is already making a difference for scientists now, and it will undoubtedly enable other scientists to make new discoveries in the future.
- “The Center for Bright Beams,” A National Science Foundation Science & Technology Center, 2019, February 7, 2020, https://cbb. classe.cornell.edu/About/WebHome.html.