Brookhaven Lab's new facility took five years to build. It's...

Brookhaven Lab's new facility took five years to build. It's so big that instead of walking, construction workers on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014, pedal around on adult-size tricycles. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

On the forested campus of Brookhaven National Laboratory, scientists are revving up a stadium-sized X-ray machine to peer inside tiny matter and, they hope, spur extraordinary discoveries to improve everyday products, from computers to trash bags.

The gleaming $912 million facility looks like a giant flying saucer parked amid the Long Island Pine Barrens and is expected to draw researchers from across academia and corporate America. Inside, electrons will race around a concrete tunnel, emitting dazzlingly bright light to form some of the most powerful X-rays on Earth.

"It's like an X-ray for a tooth -- but a million times brighter," said Steven Dierker, an associate director at the lab in Upton who oversaw the facility's design and construction.

Officials have long hoped local research facilities would spur an economic renaissance on Long Island. The effort remains nascent, but perhaps nowhere is the local intersection of science and industry more evident than in Brookhaven's pioneering use of X-rays.

For decades, researchers from IBM, Dow Chemical Co., Pfizer Inc. and other companies have flocked to the laboratory's X-ray facilities to study materials for new products. Brookhaven's new X-ray machine, called a synchrotron, replaces a smaller version at the lab that closed in September after 32 years of discoveries and two Nobel Prizes.

Practical applications

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the new synchrotron is scheduled to open by January and, researchers say, will return the United States to the forefront of using light beams for discovery. Brookhaven, home to a total of seven Nobel Prizes, has long been a top research center. But building the world's most powerful synchrotron will bring the lab new swagger, scientists say, giving Long Island an edge in the global race for research funding and talent.

"If this is the best facility in the world, then all the best people will want to go there," said Joel Brock, who runs a synchrotron at Cornell University.

For all its stratospheric potential, many of the synchrotron's impacts are apt to be down to earth.

For example, researchers for IBM worked for 30 years at Brookhaven's previous synchrotron studying materials used in computer chips, helping to make them smaller and faster.

A team from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago used the facility to develop treatments to improve bone strength.

And scientists from Exxon Mobil used Brookhaven's synchrotron to study polymers, which led to stronger and more pliable trash bags.

"You can study everything under the sun with a synchrotron," said Peter Abbamonte, a physicist at the University of Illinois. "It's not all front-page stuff. But, boy, it integrates into society in really fundamental ways."

To understand why synchrotrons are so versatile, think of them as X-ray machines and microscopes rolled into one. They allow scientists to not only see inside materials, but also magnify the images large enough to watch individual atoms. By seeing those atoms in action, they can better understand a substance and, ideally, add a dash of this or a sprinkle of that to make it work better.

For instance, as researchers at GE have been developing industrial-sized batteries over the past six years, they have tried to learn what makes them wear out. Without X-rays, that means slicing a battery open after it dies, then performing an autopsy to discover what went wrong.

Yet with the synchrotron's X-rays, they can leave the battery intact and peer inside to see a close-up of the chemical reaction. That allows them to fine-tune the chemicals and, ultimately, develop a longer-lasting battery.

"To have the ability to look inside while the battery is operating . . . it's a phenomenal capability," said Glen Merfeld, a GE researcher.

Scientific workhorse

Synchrotrons have their roots in particle accelerators, which use magnets to propel subatomic bits for studying matter. It turns out that when charged particles reach nearly the speed of light, they emit powerful X-rays.

In 1982, Brookhaven, home to one of the world's largest accelerators, became the first lab to build a facility dedicated exclusively to producing synchrotron light for experimentation.

The facility, called the National Synchrotron Light Source, played a key role in the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded for studies of tiny molecular channels in cells. In 2009, it helped win a Nobel for exploring the inner workings of ribosomes. And all told, the facility attracted more than 18,000 scientists over its lifetime.

"Pound for pound, it was the most productive scientific facility -- ever," Abbamonte said.

Brookhaven's new facility -- the National Synchrotron Light Source II -- will be the most powerful in the world. It will have an annual budget of roughly $160 million and employ up to 500 people, three times as many as the old facility.

From the outside, the synchrotron looks like a giant metallic ring, roughly three stories tall and a half-mile around with a grassy plaza in the center, nearly big enough to fit Yankee Stadium. Inside, the place feels like the concourse of a sports stadium. But instead of beer and hot dog stands, it's lined with laboratories and work stations, crowded with gleaming instruments, tubes, wires and computer monitors.

The facility took five years to build. It's so big that instead of walking, construction workers pedal around on adult-size tricycles, hauling their tools in baskets. Cooling fans hum. Spools of wires lay on wood pallets.

The magic of X-rays

Scientists discovered X-rays in the late 1800s. In short, they are beams of light. But they have very high frequency. That makes them invisible. And it allows them to pass through solid objects.

That ability to penetrate solid matter has made X-rays ubiquitous in medicine and metal detectors. In synchrotrons, however, they are focused and refined to become far more powerful.

Here is how it works: The process begins with a filament that when heated emits electrons, which are negatively charged subatomic particles.

Using magnets, scientists push those electrons around the ring, accelerating them until they reach nearly the speed of light. As they bend, the electrons emit X-rays.

Those rays shine into tunnels, or beamlines, jutting from the outside of the ring. (Think of them as exit ramps.)

Scientists place a sample at the end of a beamline, then blast it with the X-ray. On one hand, the X-rays work much like the ones at a doctor's office. Yet atoms are so small that researchers must use a combination of sensors and complex math to see them.

When the X-ray hits the atoms, the ray deflects in different directions. The sensors pick up the angles and intensity of those deflections. Using that data, scientists calculate backward to piece together a picture of the atomic structure inside the material.

Think about shadow puppets. A flashlight shines on someone's hand. The light hits it, projecting an image on a wall. The image isn't actually the hand, but it shows the hand's shape and movements. That's akin to what happens inside a synchrotron. But it's on a bewilderingly small scale.

Eventually, scientists hope to focus the beams down to a single nanometer. For perspective, in the time it takes to read this sentence, your fingernails will each have grown by about 4 nanometers.

That level of precision means the smallest of quivers can disrupt an experiment. So engineers took elaborate steps to insulate the building, including muffling rhythmic pulses from ocean waves lapping on the South Shore 6 miles away.

Initially, the facility will have seven beamlines, where separate teams of scientists can run experiments simultaneously. Brookhaven hopes to install at least 30 lines by 2018. And the facility is designed to eventually have up to 70.

Researchers who agree to publish their results can use the facility for free. Industrial researchers whose work is proprietary must pay.

The synchrotron hit a milestone on Thursday, when scientists accelerated electrons fast enough to generate the facility's first X-rays. Over the next few weeks, they will fine- tune the beam. The science could begin by year-end.

"This will be, by far, the best place in the world to do this kind of research," said Paul G. Evans, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Wisconsin. "They will get 30 years of fantastic science out of this."

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