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Minnesota State University, Mankato
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CSET Acquires Particle Accelerator

Story from the August 5 Mankato Free Press

2014-08-06

A front end loader delivers a piece of the particle accelerator.

by Jessica Bies, Mankato Free Press

Andrew Roberts, a physics professor at Minnesota State University, has been on the hunt for a particle accelerator for years now.

So when he heard the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory at Duke University was upgrading its facilities and replacing its four million volt atom smasher with a newer model, he couldn’t help but get excited.

"They are hard to get your hands on,” Roberts said. “Typically, the large national facilities  like to keep the other (accelerator) in operation somewhere rather than throwing it away."

Researchers at the Duke laboratory chose to donate their machine, hoping it could be used by physics and engineering students at another university. It will be housed at MSU’s Center of Renewable Energy where it will be put into partial operation until a new space, with full radioactive shielding, can be built for it. Valued at more than $1 million, the particle accelerator will be operated by students in the departments of chemistry, biology, physics and electrical engineering.

Used to send nuclear particles such as protons or electrons to collide with an atom at nearly the speed of light, the large machines allow scientists to examine an atom’s internal parts and what holds them together. Roberts said the atom smasher also can be used to create radioactive material that can be used in various academic studies.

Having the accelerator on campus will place MSU at the forefront of nuclear science training in the U.S. and allow the university to establish a teaching and training center for applied nuclear physics research, said Youwen Xu, chair of MSU's physics department. MSU will be one of a handful of nuclear training centers in the U.S. and the only one in Minnesota. MSU already owns a small particle accelerator, but it is only capable of producing a half million volts and has allowed students to undergo basic training and not much else. The larger one will give undergraduates the chance to work on more expansive projects and get the experience they need for working at large national labs such as the ones in Berkeley, California or Los Alamos, New Mexico.

"This one is 10 times more energetic than the other one, so it can produce more exciting things," Xu said.

The students also will get to work on the atom smasher itself, which has been in storage for more than five years and is now in pieces, Roberts said. It will likely take a full year to get the machine up and running.

Undergrads will lend a hand putting the accelerator back together, getting some rare experience in the process, Xu said.

"These accelerators, there's many large ones all over the world, but students don't go to work on them, they go to use them," Xu said.

There are more than 30,000 particle accelerators in operation all over the world, according to particle physics magazine Symmetry. The largest is at the CERN international physics laboratory. Particles zip through a nearly 16-mile loop until they collide, creating what scientists say is the equivalent of the Big Bang. It was used in 2012 to create what is believed to be a Higg’s Boson, a subatomic particle that gives mass to other particles.

The one now housed at MSU is much smaller but can be used for medical research, Roberts said. He'll just have to get it up and running first.

Xu said there's no one better for the task. Roberts, who has worked on accelerators all over the country and in Europe, has assembled at least five atom smashers in the past. Putting this newest one together should be a piece of cake.

"It shouldn't be too hard," Roberts said. "We know it was in perfect working order when it was packed away five years ago. We just have to put it back together."

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