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

Laboratories across the country stand at the forefront of scientific research in fields that include nuclear fusion, neutrino oscillation and the search for traces of dark energy as well as advances in biology, chemistry, medicine, geophysics, material science and more.

The year 2014 will bring some of these laboratories’ projects to a close, see the completion of other projects-in-progress and witness the first runs of long-awaited experiments like Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s NOvA experiment and Brookhaven National Laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source II.

In 1931, Earnest Orlando Lawrence founded Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The lab initially served as a site for research using his new instrument, the cyclotron, which won him the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics. Since then, the lab has led many scientific research experiments including the recent Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), which will conduct its last sweep of sky in June.

BOSS is an important tool for understanding the properties of dark energy by accurately measuring the expansion rate of the universe through determining galaxy distances to increasingly high precision. Just last week, the BOSS collaboration announced that they had determined the distances to galaxies more than 6 billion light-years away to within one-percent accuracy.

An artist’s concept of the latest results from BOSS on the accurate measurement of the universe. The circles, which outline the size of what scientists call baryon acoustic oscillations, are a kind of “standard ruler” for measuring accurate distances to galaxies both nearby and far away. Credit: Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Berkeley National Lab will also be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. The center was the first site where scientists used a powerful computing resource for unclassified scientific computing, and it currently serves over 4,700 users worldwide.

Thirteen years after Berkeley Lab was established, a laboratory sprung up in the midst of some isolated farmland in Tennessee. Initially founded as part of the Manhattan Project and called “Clinton Laboratories”, the facility later adopted the title Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a name it keeps today.

This year, Oak Ridge will present five new neutron scattering instruments for use at its Spallation Neutron Source and High Flux Isotope Reactor. Each year, more than 500 researchers use the lab’s reactor, the strongest neutron source in the U.S., to study the fundamental properties of condensed matter.

Aerial of Oak Ridge National Laboratory Campus. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Department of Energy

They do this by observing how matter interacts with free neutrons and how those neutrons scatter as a result. Neutron scattering has become a tool for research in fields concerning clean energy, pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology.

Another achievement for Oak Ridge in 2014 will be the first full year of operations of its unique supercomputing system called Titan and also of the DOE Ames-based Critical Materials Institute, which Oak Ridge supports. The Critical Materials Institute is dedicated to finding alternative sources of domestic rare earth elements, which are essential to running various technologies like cell phones, computers and televisions. Right now, the U.S. depends on China for much of its rare earths.

Next on the list is one of Illinois’ two large national research laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne was established in 1946, three years after Oak Ridge Lab. The lab’s Advanced Protein Crystallization Facility is scheduled to open its doors this year, after about three years of construction.

Aerial of Argonne National Laboratory. Credit: Argonne Lab, U.S. Department of Energy

The facility will provide researchers with advanced technology for studying and conducting experiments in protein science. Protein science investigates the structure of proteins and how they interact with cells. Last year, for example, Argonne researchers discovered that mutations from a specific protein were linked to the onset of diabetes.

Argonne is also in the midst of a multi-year project focusing on theoretical studies of quarks and gluons, some of the first matter to exist in the universe. Led by a theoretical physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the project is taking advantage of Argonne’s Leadership Computing Facility to study quark and gluon behavior in certain situations that scientists cannot observe experimentally.

One year after Argonne opened, Brookhaven National Laboratory took up residence in New York and established its name from its hometown, the Town of Brookhaven. Throughout this spring and summer, engineers at Brookhaven will commission the booster and storage ring that will help power the lab's National Synchrotron Light Source II.

Aerial view of Brookhaven National Laboratory photographed in 2011. The National Synchrotron Light Source II (under construction) is in the foreground at right. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) is visible at top. Credit: Brookhaven Lab, U.S. Department of Energy

Then this fall, the NSLS-II will replace its predecessor, the National Synchrotron Light Source, and begin feeding synchrotron light to early science experiments. NSLS-II will provide x-rays 10,000 times brighter than NSLS for the 2,200 researchers that each year use the current NSLS for experiments in biology, physics, chemistry, medicine and more scientific fields.

Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider is scheduled to start its "Run 14" this February. In fact, the RHIC was the first machine in the world capable of colliding heavy ions. This year's run will be the first opportunity for scientists to take advantage of the collider’s accelerator and detector upgrades that will tighten particle beams, bunching the beam's constituents closer together, for a higher probability of collisions. Scientists expect that the data that Run 14 generates will provide more details for understanding the early-universe when all that existed was a sea of quarks and gluons, called the quark-gluon plasma.

Brookhaven is also expecting a visitor in the next couple of months: the BaBar magnet, which will be traveling all the way from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. The magnet will be a key element in a future upgrade for the lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider’s PHENIX detector. This detector is designed to discover the quark-gluon plasma. If successful, it will add another shred of supporting evidence to the Big Bang theory.

Stay tuned for the second half of this post on Thursday!

All of the laboratories stated in today’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 post.

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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