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Part II: The Most Exciting Physics (and more!) to Happen at National Laboratories in 2014

During the mid-17th century, one of the hot spots for physics research was the house of Galileo Galilei. By timing objects that rolled down inclined planes, he was the first to prove that falling objects on Earth, regardless of their mass, should accelerate at the same rate in the absence of air resistance. His research laid the foundation for Newton’s law of gravity.

Today, if you are itching to know the next milestone in physics and its importance, look deep within the caverns of particle accelerators, neutrino detectors and supercomputers at U.S. national labs. Many questions remain unanswered, but perhaps 2014 will shed light on some of these perplexing mysteries.

This is a continuation from Tuesday’s post about what science you can expect to see this year from research laboratories across the country. Picking up where we left off is Ames National Laboratory.

In 1947, Ames National Laboratory was established for its success with the Ames Project, which started five years earlier. In 1942, Frank Spedding of Iowa State College applied his expertise in chemistry, specifically with rare earth elements, to sew the seeds for the Ames Project, which developed ways to reduce the production cost of high-purity uranium.

A sample of reduced uranium metal via the Ames Process. Credit: Ames Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

Their low-cost methods are called the Ames Process, and with it the Ames Project produced more than 2 million pounds of uranium for the Manhattan Project. Some of which was used in the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago. Five years after Spedding founded the Ames Project, Ames National Laboratory was established.

Today, Ames Lab still deals in rare earth elements and leads the Critical Materials Institute. The Critical Material Institute gathers support from the lab’s collaborations with a previously mentioned lab, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and many other academic and industrial institutes across the country. At the end of this year, the Critical Material Institute will have completed its first full year of operations. For more information visit last Tuesday’s post.

Ames Lab has also scheduled to break ground on a new research facility, the Sensitive Instrument Facility, some time in April or May of this year. As the name implies, the facility will host instruments like electron and scanning probe microscopes with sensitivities that will give scientists some of the most detailed look yet at materials on an atomic scale. Such research could lead to the design of new materials.

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, established in 1961 in New Jersey, expects to complete upgrades to its National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) this fall. The upgrades will make the NSTX, soon to be called NSTX-U (“U” for upgrade), the most powerful spherical tokamak in the world. What’s a tokamak and why, for that matter, is it spherical?

The National Spherical Torus Experiment as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Credit: Princeton Plasma Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy. 

Actually, most tokamak’s are donut-shaped. But in 1984 Martin Peng of Oak Ridge National Lab proposed something different: Drastically reduce the size of the hole in the middle of a traditional tokamak, thus making a spherical-shaped tokamak.

Tokamak’s create plasmas from hydrogen isotopes and controls them using magnetic field lines that travel around the tokamak device. The Princeton Physics Plasma Laboratory’s NSTX creates spherical-shaped plasma to find ways of harnessing energy produced from nuclear fusion, which would serve as a safe, alternative, environmental-friendly energy source. Ninety-three million miles away, the Sun, a colossal version of what NSTX creates, produces more energy every second than the human race could hope to consume within the next 500,000 years!

There are advantages and disadvantages to a spherical tokamak verses the traditional torus-shape, but those details will have to wait for another blog post.

Turning our gaze now to the other side of the country from New Jersey, in Menlo Park, California is SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, established in 1962. SLAC runs the Instrument Science Operations Center, which processes data that NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope collects.

Gamma ray bubbles that Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope discovered. Credit: NASA Goddard.

Scientists have recently focused the telescope's attention on the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, a place where signatures of dark matter may lurk that could hold clues about the origin of dark matter as well as its behavior and influence on visible matter throughout the universe. So, this year, we can hope to see the benefits that astronomers will reap from the new data coming out of SLAC’s Science Operations Center.

Five years after SLAC, in 1967, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) was established, although at that time it was founded as the National Accelerator Laboratory. It was renamed in 1974 in honor of Physics Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi. Fermilab was once home to the world’s second highest energy particle collider, the Tevatron, which ended operations in 2011.

In the few years since, the laboratory has continued forward and will see one of its big projects come to fruition in 2014. Within the next few months, Fermilab will announce the first observations of its NOvA experiment. NOvA is designed to detect neutrinos so that scientists can observe the oscillations of muon neutrinos into electron neutrinos.

The experiment involves sending neutrinos made by Fermilab’s NuMi neutrino beam from Illinois to Minnesota, roughly a 500-mile trip. Using two detectors, one based at Fermilab and the other in Minnesota, scientists will be able to determine how many neutrinos oscillated from muon types into electron types. First observations will involve sending the first batch of neutrinos to the detector in Minnesota, and official data taking will begin soon after.

In 2014, Fermilab will also finish construction of two buildings: the Illinois Accelerator Research Center (IARC) and the building to house the particle storage ring for the lab’s Muon g-2 experiment. IARC will serve as an office space where scientists will study the latest in accelerator technologies. The storage ring, a massive electromagnet, will contain muons inside of its magnetic field so that scientists can study the muons’ wobbly behavior.

Also this year, DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Program will begin taking new data. Established in 1989, the ARM Program works to better understand the process by which clouds form and the factors that affect that process.

Cloudy dissonance: These cumulus clouds above Oklahoma both shade the earth and make shadows brighter. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

Next month, the program’s Green Ocean Amazon (GOAMAZON) field campaign will begin the first of two intensive operational periods scheduled for 2014. The purpose of which is to refine tropical rain forest models that detail how pollution affects tropical rain forest regions’ climate conditions such as cloud cycles.

To do this, the experiment will take place in the Manaus region, which is located in a state of Brazil called Amazonas. It will include aerial measurements of aerosol levels in the atmosphere as well as similar measurements from five ground-based sites.

Another February event for the ARM Program will mark the start of data collection for it’s Finland-based Biogenic Aerosols – Effects on Clouds and Climate field campaign. The campaign will perform similar ground and air-based measurements as GOAMAZON, but with the goal of determining how biological processes in forests, like released gases from shrubs and fungi, can affect clouds and additional climate factors.

All of the laboratories stated in today’s and last Tuesday’s blog post are national laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy. Most projects mentioned are the result of massive international collaborations, which were not detailed here for the sake of keeping the blog post at a reasonable and readable length. For more information about collaboration partners and details about the engineering and science of each project, visit the hyperlinks provided throughout the two posts.

A special thank you to DOE Senior Writer Charles Rousseaux and the others who helped to contribute information for this post.


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