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The Science That Enables Other Sciences

A screenshot from Iron Man.
Photo by Pietro

Lithography, computer chips, and electron microscopes all need particle accelerators. Accelerators are scientific tools that use beams of charged particles to investigate particle physics. But there is a need for accelerators to be cheaper and brighter, and BYU is exploring how.

In early September of this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced $94 million in funding to support four new Science and Technology Centers (STCs). STCs comprise partnerships of universities, federal labs, industry, and other organizations that provide rich environments for training scientists and engineers by integrating research and education. STCs treat inquiry, discovery, and creativity as integral parts of the learning process. Each center will receive up to $24 million over a five-year period, with the possibility of five additional years.

One of the four centers is the Center for Bright Beams, led by J. Ritchie Patterson and Georg H. Hoffstaetter at Cornell University. The Center for Bright Beams is focused on particle physics and material science, and in particular, particle accelerators.

“Particle accelerators—we’re talking about machines that will take subatomic particles and get them moving really fast,” Dr. Mark Transtrum said.

Transtrum, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Brigham Young University, is an affiliate of the center, which also involves the University of Chicago, UCLA, Morehouse College, and the University of Toronto. The main research goal for the Center for Bright Beams is to decrease the cost of key accelerator technologies while simultaneously increasing the brightness of charged particle beams.

“I think the appeal of this center is that particle accelerators are used for lots of different areas of science,” Transtrum said.

In particle accelerators, large electric fields are doing the accelerating, but a large electric field can generate a lot of heat, so accelerators are made using superconductors.  An electric field cannot exist without having a large magnetic field, and unfortunately, superconductors and magnetic fields repel each other like oil and water.  A strong enough magnetic field will kill the superconductivity causing the accelerator to overheat. The center wants to develop new materials that are superconductors but are more efficient.

“I’m calculating how big of a magnetic field a particular material can expel,” Transtrum said. “When it crosses that threshold—that’s the absolute limit for how good a material can be. We would like to provide the center with simulations and calculations that predict how good different types of materials can be.”

Beyond the world of physics research, improved particle accelerators are of value to such wide-ranging applications as lithography, computer chips, and biological samples. The center envisions this research will make accelerator technologies more accessible and less expensive, especially on college and university campuses.

“Instead of being the sizes of buildings and costing millions of dollars, they’re the size of rooms and cost $50,000,” Transtrum said. “They could exist on campuses across the country and all of the scientific disciplines could use them and it would be really profound.”

As an STC, the Center for Bright Beams wants to contribute to all scientific disciplines, from physics to chemistry to biology, by enhancing accelerator capabilities. Transtrum is very excited to be a part of it and to mentor and educate students through it as well.

“In a few years, we’ll be doing educational outreach here at BYU,” Transtrum said. “I’m excited for BYU students to meet other people in the field, be involved professionally, and get a leg up as far as advancing their career after they graduate.”

Overall, it’s the immense impact of the Center of Bright Beams on many scientific disciplines and in many people’s lives, including students, that matters the most.

“These are centers that the NSF is investing a lot of money in, but there are very few of them,” Transtrum said. “If there were better particle accelerators then it would have a profound impact on all of science, not just accelerator science and condensed matter physics. It’s a science that enables other sciences.”