Visiting a particle accelerator

Ever been to one? A few months ago I was allocated two days of beamtime at the Advanced Photon Source, which is part of DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. The facility accelerates electrons to energies of 7 GeV (equivalent to moving at more than 99% the speed of light), then uses large magnets to convert the electrons’ energy into x-rays. I was using the x-rays to take detailed images of plant cells. Unlike a medical x-ray system, these x-rays are much brighter, don’t spread out, and come in a single wavelength – all these properties mean you can take images of unparalleled quality, and very quickly. I’d love to share more about the research, but the terms of my funding prevent me from sharing results yet!

Working at this facility is different than working in most labs. There’s extensive safety training, to make sure you don’t get harmed by all the x-rays in the facility. There are actually big red ‘STOP’ buttons in all experimental stations to enable users to shut off the radiation in an emergency.

The facility’s size is hard to comprehend. The main accelerator facility is a ring with an 1104 meter circumference – it takes at least 10 minutes to walk all the way around the facility. Fortunately there are tricycles available for the use of all scientists, and you’ll regularly see investigators cruising around from experimental station to machine shop, office to coffee bar, on a three-wheeled conveyance. My partner Bryan and I made this video, to show you what a ride around the entire ring is like. It’s sped up by 5x, so you have an idea of how far we’re really going.

As you can see, Bryan is an excellent tricycle driver – this was our first and only take!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex Benn says:

    There are so many expensive-looking pipes and wires and boxes!

    1. bblonder says:

      About $1 billion in construction costs! It’s wonderful to be able to use the facility at no-cost to the user…

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