In a concrete tunnel beneath the pine forests of central Long Island, the microscopic fireballs that trigger scientific breakthroughs and power hundreds of jobs are in danger of flickering out.
For 13 years, Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider has been smashing atoms together at almost the speed of light, drawing physicists from around the world to study how matter behaved in the instant after the Big Bang.
The facility, in Upton, supports 860 jobs. It attracts 1,000 visiting scientists each year. And it underpins much of the world-class research on Long Island that officials hope will someday give birth to a culture of high-tech start-up companies to reinvigorate the region's economy.
Now the fiscal battles in Washington are threatening to eviscerate the collider's $165-million annual budget. And officials fear a crucial economic engine on the Island could be obliterated like the tiny particles that race around inside the 2.4-mile tunnel.
"The loss of the collider would be doubly devastating," said Mark Lesko, executive director of Accelerate Long Island, an organization promoting the growth of technology-based start-ups. "We would not only lose research jobs, but also future jobs at high-tech companies that are based on research at the facility."
High-tech future at risk
As lawmakers in Washington argue over spending, taxes and trimming the federal budget deficit, local officials across America worry about how cuts will hit home. On Long Island, Brookhaven's collider -- which has fueled advances in fields ranging from particle beams for cancer treatment to superconducting magnets for electricity transmission -- is among the first major projects in the crosshairs.
In January, a panel of physicists advising the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation issued a report ranking the collider last among three physics research facilities vying for federal funding. The committee was assigned to help Energy Department officials make tough decisions in case the budget shrinks, and Brookhaven fell short to projects in Michigan and Virginia.
The physicists made clear that cutting any facilities would be a disaster for science, jeopardizing America's leadership in nuclear research. Rather than closing one, they urged officials to modestly increase the budget to fund all three. Yet, if something must go, the panel reluctantly pointed toward Brookhaven, the nation's only heavy ion collider.
That leaves the facility's future uncertain. The collider has enough funding to operate until at least 2014. The panel's recommendation to the Energy Department is only advisory. And a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers representing Long Island have vowed to fight to keep it open.
But they concede it may not be easy, given the pressure in Washington to cut spending.
The price of spending cuts
The collider's experiments may already be truncated this year because of automatic spending cuts triggered by sequestration in January. In March, House Republicans introduced a federal budget proposal to cut $4.6 trillion in spending over the next decade. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have proposed modestly increasing research funding. But whether that happens depends on future budget battles.
"We have great cause for concern," said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose district includes Brookhaven.
Three months ago the Brookhaven lab fell short in its bid with Stony Brook University for a $120-million federal grant from the Energy Department to develop a new generation of batteries to power everything from cellphones to cars. Officials had hoped the funding would add as many as 270 local jobs. Now they are hoping to dodge an even more painful loss. "The laboratory would take a blow -- a serious blow," said Doon Gibbs, Brookhaven's interim director, who was named the director of the lab on Friday.
Buried several feet below ground on the laboratory's 5,300-acre campus, the collider cuts a roughly 4,000-foot-wide ring into the surrounding pine barrens, large enough to be seen from outer space. It has been the largest and most costly facility at Brookhaven since opening in 2000, accounting for nearly 25 percent of the lab's roughly $700-million annual budget.
Inside, scientists remove electrons from atoms of gold, creating positively charged particles called ions. After accelerating them to more than 670 million miles per hour, researchers run the little gold bits through aluminum foil -- the same stuff used to wrap leftovers -- to strip away any remaining electrons, leaving a bare gold nucleus. Then they smash them together, creating impacts generating temperatures 250,000 times hotter than the sun.
The collisions cause particles' protons and neutrons to briefly melt into a soup of quarks and gluons, some of the universe's most basic building blocks. Watching particles melt into primordial plasma has given scientists new insight into the fundamental nature of matter. But scientists say the collider's impact extends beyond insights into the dawn of time.
The facility has put Brookhaven in the vanguard of developing superconducting magnets, which may someday eliminate blackouts by transforming the transmission and storage of electricity. The collider has led to advancements in processing mountains of data, which could speed downloading photos or storing a company's data in the cloud. NASA uses the facility to study the dangers of radiation in space. And it has educated a generation of scientists, attracting more than 350 students to Long Island since 2000 for their doctoral research.
"The best people go to the greatest challenges," said Thomas Hemmick, a Stony Brook University physics professor working on the collider.
For years, officials have hoped physicists and engineers drawn by the collider and other local research facilities would generate an explosion in high-tech companies and replace jobs that disappeared when the local aerospace industry fizzled. So far that hasn't happened.
Lab plays key role
Last year, Brookhaven joined with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Stony Brook and other research facilities to launch Accelerate Long Island in a renewed push to create a culture of start-ups here.
If the collider shuts down, officials fear a fundamental piece of that effort's foundation will erode.
"Every region of the country wants to be the high-tech, nanotech, bio-tech . . . clean-tech region of the country," said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group. "But they don't have the assets. We have one of the best Department of Energy labs in the country." Losing a key facility here, Law said, would be "terrible."
The roots of the collider's budget woes date to 2007, when the economy was soaring. Like many at the height of the boom, politicians in Washington were thinking big.
Congress and the White House vowed to double the budget for scientific research over the next decade, and the Energy Department asked an advisory committee to develop a long-range plan. The group, chaired by Texas A&M University professor Robert Tribble, recommended continuing funding for Brookhaven's collider, embarking on a $300-million upgrade of Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator in Virginia and helping build a new $615-million facility for rare isotope beams at Michigan State University.
Then the economy imploded in 2008. The Energy Department needed to scale back. So last year it convened a second committee, again chaired by Tribble, to rethink the long-range plan.
By then, work was already under way on the facilities in Virginia and Michigan. Instead of walking away from those investments, the committee recommended, with reticence, to eliminate Brookhaven's collider. Tribble, who has worked at the collider, said the decision was "extremely frustrating."
"We are in a very difficult position," he said. "We don't have a facility that has done most of what it can do and [that] should be turned off."
Budget cuts have imperiled the facility before. In 2006, the collider was about to go dark when Renaissance Technologies Corp., the East Setauket hedge fund run by former Stony Brook University math professor James Simons, donated $13 million to keep the atoms whizzing. This time the situation is more dire, officials said. And it may take more than a big donation to keep the tiny fireballs colliding.
"In short," Bishop said, "we are up against it."