Helping to Unravel the Mysteries of the Universe

October 28, 2016

Source: Q3 2016 Inside PAE. Click here for the PDF of the article as it originally appeared in the PAE employee magazine. 

Jefferson Science Associates (JSA), a joint venture between Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. (SURA) and PAE, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab) in Newport News, Virginia, one of ten research facilities funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. JSA is responsible for the design, construction, operation, maintenance and management of the facility.

Researching Life’s Smallest Matter to Understand the Universe

Jefferson Lab is a renowned nuclear physics research facility whose mission is to expand knowledge of the universe by studying sub-atomic particles known as quarks and gluons. These building blocks of matter, as scientists call them, combine to form protons and neutrons that are found in the nucleus of the atom. Although scientists understand matter’s makeup, they don’t understand how the particles build our world and universe.

“This kind of science explores the most fundamental mysteries: Why are we here? Why is it that one particular combination of quarks and forces takes on that material property, while a different combination of quarks and forces makes up the human body?” said Jefferson Lab Chief Planning Officer Dr. Allison Lung.

“What makes Jefferson Lab unique is that we conduct experiments with a continuous electron beam versus a pulsating one,” said Jefferson Lab Public Affairs Specialist Debbie Magaldi. The continuous electron beam acts as a “giant microscope” to study matter deep inside the nucleus of the atom. “It’s a special kind of technology called superconducting radiofrequency. Few facilities in the world can do what we do here.”

JSA performs all operations and management of the laboratory and oversees the research program for visiting scientists or “users” who travel to the lab to conduct experiments. “In order to continuously attract scientists, we must maintain a cutting-edge research machine,” explained Allison. “The operations, maintenance and management of the lab is imperative to the mission.”

Attracting Scientists From Around the World

Each year, Jefferson Lab attracts hundreds of researchers to its facility to conduct experiments in nuclear physics. “The resources we have here are highly attractive to scientists,” said Debbie.

Scientists who want to conduct experiments at Jefferson Lab submit proposals and then argue the merits of their experiment to the Program Advisory Committee, made up of international and world-renowned nuclear physicists and accelerator scientists. “The committee looks for two things,” Debbie explained. “First, will experiment results produce valuable outcomes for the international community, and second, can it be done?”

The committee is very strict about which experiments get approved. Once approved, the committee makes recommendations to lab leadership regarding experiment priorities and run times. “Scheduling is key,” Debbie added. “Some experiments have to run longer than others, and we can only conduct so many at one time.”

Studying Matter at the Speed of Light

Jefferson Lab uses the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) to carry out experiments that take a few weeks to several years to complete. The tunnel of the accelerator curves at each end, making it look like a racetrack. The accelerator propels a beam of electrons at close to the speed of light into targets, which are positioned in four experimental halls (or end stations). Large, stainless-steel vessels called cryomodules contain the components that “accelerate” the electron beam, while magnets, of different sizes and types, focus and steer the beam. The electrons in the beam probe the building blocks of matter in the targets.

Target composition changes depending on the research. Targets can be made of any element on the Periodic Table and in various forms, such as hydrogen or helium gas or solid carbon or lead. Targets are situated near massive devices called detector packages. Detector packages track the charge of the particles, the trajectory and the energy momentum of the particles. The captured data allows scientists to calculate and determine what those particles looked like or how they were behaving at the point of impact.

Experiments Seek to Confirm Our Theories of What Makes Up Matter

One of the most highly anticipated experiments will take place in a newly constructed facility that transforms the electron beam into a high-energy beam of photons— or particles of light. “For that particular experiment, we are trying to create new particles—dubbed exotic hybrid mesons—never before seen but predicted by a theory,” said Debbie.

The new facility is a part of an upgrade that is nearly complete. The upgrade tripled the energy of CEBAF’s electron beam over the original design, allowing it to explore even deeper into the heart of matter. “Through part of the ongoing upgrade process, we have refurbished or replaced virtually every one of the many thousands of components in CEBAF,” said Allison, who serves as the project lead. Parts of the upgrade are already complete, with the fully upgraded machine expected to come on-line in 2017.

Saving Lives Through Research

While Jefferson Lab research focuses on exploring the nature of matter, the public is already reaping tangible benefits. “One of our greatest successes so far is the transfer of detector technology to nuclear medicine,” said Debbie. “For example, when people get a mammogram, doctors can detect the density of structures inside the breast. Denser areas could mean cancer, or could be completely normal. Instead of detecting only tissue density, which a mammogram does, nuclear medicine allows doctors to see what those cells are actually doing for more accurate diagnoses.”

JSA licensed a number of patents for their detector technologies to a company, Dilon Technologies, for a machine for breast imaging. This new machine uses nuclear detection technology to spot cancers in women that mammograms can’t detect. “We have saved lives with this technology,” said Debbie.

Radical Research

“Back in the 1800s, we discovered electricity and did not know what to use it for,” said Debbie. “But now, what would life be like without it? That same type of life-altering discovery is what the research conducted at Jefferson Lab is laying the groundwork for right now. We in JSA are supporting that. We don’t always know what the research will be used for, but give it 100 years, and it may just change everything.”