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Panel Backs Next-Generation Synchrotron

26 February 1999 6:00 pm
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GAITHERSBURG, MARYLAND--A key federal panel meeting here yesterday gave the green light for continued research toward a "fourth-generation" synchrotron, a machine capable of creating x-ray pulses billions of times more intense than current designs. Although it's unlikely that it will be built in the next decade, the instrument could revolutionize many fields of science, from figuring out protein structures to understanding the physics of materials.

Last summer, the Department of Energy (DOE) asked the panel--made up primarily of university and industry-based scientists--for advice on how to proceed with novel synchrotrons. The panel's go-ahead is expected to prompt DOE to spend up to $8 million a year this year and next on research and design ideas for the machine. If given another go-ahead in 2001, DOE would likely ask Congress for about $100 million to build a test-bed facility at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. A full-scale facility, designed to accommodate around 1000 users a year, is expected to cost $1 billion to $2 billion.

While there are a number of proposed designs for a fourth-generation synchrotron, the panel threw its initial support behind a so-called "hard x-ray free-electron laser," which would use gyrating beams of electrons traveling through a linear accelerator to create its x-ray pulses. The synchrotron would produce much higher intensity pulses than existing third-generation machines can, and the x-ray light waves in each pulse would be "coherent," with the crests and troughs of the waves traveling in lockstep. That property, the panel concluded, "has the potential to open new areas of science that are likely to be well beyond what can be anticipated by current scientific knowledge and predictions."

The panel's endorsement "is a major event for the synchrotron community," says David Moncton, director of the Advanced Photon Source, a third-generation synchrotron at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. But to justify the enormous expense, "a more effective case for the science must still be made," says panel chair Stephen Leone of JILA--formerly the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics--in Boulder, Colorado. He's confident that can be done. Whether the promise of great science is enough to convince Congress is another matter: DOE's budget is already feeling the strain of another major building project, the $1.3 billion Spallation Neutron Source, which is expected to be completed in 2005.

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