A collaboration of accelerator physicists from the Department of Energy’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, the University of Southern California and Duke University has received $13 million in federal funding over the next two years to build a new plasma wave accelerator that will help scientists probe fundamental questions about the origins of the universe.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu (second from left) at the STAR Detector at Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, where he made the announcement of new funding. With him, from left, are Steven Vigdor, Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear & Particle Physics; Lab Director Sam Aronson; and U.S. Representative Tim Bishop. (Image/Brookhaven Lab.)
The funds are part of a newly announced $1.2 billion federal package authorized by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to support an array of construction, laboratory infrastructure and research projects across the country. A portion of the funding -- $68.3 million -- will go to SLAC, which will be home to the new plasma wave accelerator known as FACET (Facility for Advanced Accelerator Experimental Tests).
Chu made the announcement during a visit March 23 to Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, NY, saying: "Leadership in science remains vital to America's economic prosperity, energy security, and global competitiveness. These projects not only provide critically needed short-term economic relief but also represent a strategic investment in our nation's future. They will create thousands of jobs and breathe new life into many local economies, while helping to accelerate new technology development, renew our scientific and engineering workforce, and modernize our nation's scientific infrastructure."
“This is great recognition for the work we have been doing and for the potential of our research to impact a future electron/positron accelerator,” said Patric Muggli, electrophysics research professor in the Viterbi School’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. “It is also great recognition for USC, since we have been contributing very significantly to the slow, steady progress of plasma physics.”
The funds will energize development of FACET, which will support experiments that seek to accelerate particles in shorter distances than has ever been achieved before, Muggli said. When built, FACET will be one of two test beam facilities in North America, and the only program in the world with the capabilities to study this kind of next-generation particle acceleration.
"We are very excited that these funds will allow us to make new investments in this lab and in the scientific future of this country," said SLAC Director Persis Drell. "The Recovery Act funding will enable SLAC to accelerate delivery of science from our premier new facility, the Linac Coherent Light Source. It will also provide much-needed modernization and construction of our facilities, while bringing new hope and jobs to the local economy."
Scientists need to continue their quest to accelerate electrons at very high energy levels in order to break particles into atoms, nuclei and subatomic matter. Only then can they begin to answer fundamental questions about the building blocks of the universe, the origins of matter, and study other mysteries such as the existence of dark matter and black holes.
Experiments have shown that acceleration using plasma, or ionized gas, can dramatically boost the energy of particles in a short distance. In a ground-breaking experiment conducted in 2007, researchers at SLAC, UCLA and USC achieved the biggest acceleration gradient ever using ionized gas. The gradient is a measure of how quickly particles amass energy. In this case, the electrons hurtling through the plasma chamber gained 3,000 times more energy per meter than usual in the accelerator.
“FACET is a key facility that will let us explore these proof-of-principle experiments and determine whether they can be incorporated in the design of a future plasma-based electron/positron collider,” Muggli said. “The facility is really a necessary next step in our understanding of how to build bigger, more powerful accelerators. The experiments that we will be running in FACET could revolutionize the world of particle accelerators and enable new particle physics discoveries, or they might take us in other directions.”