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Sept. 23, 2009 - Associate Director of Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, Don Bilderback, details Cornell's proposal to build a half-billion dollar X-ray machine.

Podcast material & additional notes:

What is an Energy Recovery Linac X-ray Machine?
It will be a much brighter source of x-rays for the future than any present day x-ray source. It will be the world’s most advanced x-ray machine for decades to come.

Let me give you a little more background about our situation. The National Science Foundation has sponsored Cornell’s existing synchrotron x-ray facility under upper Alumni field on the Cornell campus. It has been used for many years as a high intensity x-ray source to study the structure of matter down to the atomic scale. This is important for physics, biology, medicine, chemistry and materials science, and lets us do things that are not possible with more conventional x-ray equipment. X-rays, as we all know, are a tool that allows the doctor to see into a broken bone and specifically diagnose what is the matter. Once the physician has a clear view of the problem, he can chart a course for repairing the broken bone. The scientist uses x-rays in similar ways to understand what he cannot see by other means.

Scientist from Cornell and across the world bring their scientific projects to our synchrotron laboratory to shine our intense synchrotron x-rays onto their samples. They want to examine how the atoms are arranged in their specimens. Ultimately this leads to a better understanding of how matter functions. For example, via a technique called x-ray crystallography, we obtain a detailed picture of the structure of biological proteins, viruses and membranes. Often with that 3d view of the internal structure, you can figure out how that piece of biology works. The ERL will allow us study much more complicated objects, perhaps something even as large and complex as a single cell. Another example - if you are a chemist, you may want to understand the role of different atoms during a chemical reaction on the surface of a catalyst and learn more specifically how the atoms catalyze that reaction process. This can be a very important step in engineering more energy efficient catalysts for the future. As the most exciting catalysts today are made from nanomaterials and we want to make movies of how the heavy atoms that are responsible for catalysis move from the interior of the nanoparticle to its outer surface as the reaction proceeds. We don’t have enough x-ray intensity if we try this experiment now on a single nanoparticle, but we will have with the ERL, and, because of this, chemists get very excited about the future prospects of an ERL.

So the new x-ray capabilities envisioned with the ERL will allow us to peer into matter in our physical world in far more richer detail than we now can and what we learn as a result will help us as a technically-based society to build more efficient batteries, catalysts, solar cells; develop better drugs to improve our human health, and help to keep America scientifically competitive.

Where are you in a project time line?
The nearly $19M dollars awarded this year through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will support research at Wilson Lab. This includes our present x-ray facility, the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS); accelerator R&D on CESR (Cornell Electron Storage Ring), and R&D on the ERL. We are presently prototyping the key components of the new ERL machine and we hope to complete enough of the R&D work to be ready to submit a conceptual design to the National Science Foundation for the new $400M machine in 2010. When funded, the machine would have a construction time of 5 years. It’s still difficult to project a start date for the machine, since both the NSF and the US Congress will need to first approve funding for it. We obviously hope this happens in the next few years.

What would be the impact to our Ithaca community?
First, the present x-ray facility is responsible for the employment of about 200 people. The ERL would keep several hundred high-tech jobs in Ithaca. We would increase the number of workers at Wilson Laboratory on the Cornell campus by about 10% or about 20 people.

Second, it will offer great advantages to Cornell. It would help us continue to attract the best faculty and students in the world.

Third, it would greatly boost the economy in upstate New York. Our consultants have estimated that ERL machine, taking into account direct spending and through the multiplier effect, will generate about 1B$ in terms of economic output in NYS during its 5 years of construction and its first 10 years of operation.

Will high-energy physics continue at the Wilson Laboratory?
Not directly. Our high-energy physics program finished its mission on the Cornell synchrotron about a year ago though some of the data collected is still being analyzed. But the Cornell physicists who are interested in high energy physics are now traveling to Switzerland to participate in activities at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which is a gigantic scientific instrument near Geneva where scientists continue to study the smallest fundamental building blocks of the Universe in their proton, anti-proton collider machine.