Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2004
Future looks bright for neutrons and protons at IU Cyclotron Facility
New director plans to expand range of activities
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Seven years after looking as though it might be shut down when federal funding was diverted to larger particle accelerators, the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility is flourishing as scientists pursue innovative projects ranging from cancer therapy to materials research.
"I remember vividly the dark days in 1997 after we received the word from the National Science Foundation that they would cease their support for operations in 2002," said IUCF Director Emeritus John Cameron. "In retrospect this maybe was a blessing in disguise, because it released the great innovative forces that exist here at IUCF, and a great many good things have resulted. Today the laboratory is very different and much stronger than it was when that decision was made."
Building on the results of Cameron's leadership, IU Vice President for Research Michael McRobbie recently appointed Professor Paul Sokol as the new IUCF director. "Paul Sokol is eminently qualified to lead the largest single instrument research facility in the state," McRobbie said, "and the time is right to bring the focus on new activities in neutron scattering to their full potential. Sokol's expertise is in these areas."
Sokol's research interests are in the study of microstructure and dynamics of condensed matter using neutron scattering techniques and in the construction of neutron scattering instrumentation. He came to IU in August from Penn State University.
"Nuclear physics has always been important here and will continue to be so. But neutron scattering will bring people here from around the world," Sokol said. He plans to expand neutron scattering applications into a variety of fields such as chemistry, biology, anthropology and art history. Neutron beams can be used to "see underneath" a painting, for example, and detect the atomic makeup of what is there.
The basis for IUCF's new emphasis on neutron scattering is the Low Energy Neutron Source, which produces neutron beams for use in research. The only facility of its kind at any university in the world, LENS has a three-fold mission: to conduct materials research with neutrons, to develop new neutron instrumentation for both fundamental and applied research, and to enhance education in the science and technology of neutrons at all levels.
The interaction of neutron beams with various materials allows scientists to learn about the arrangement of atoms in the material, the sizes and shapes of molecules such as proteins, and the properties of surfaces. Neutrons can even be used to form an image of the inside of a material. Neutron scattering has been identified as an area of national importance for defense, medicine and science, and this has led to a national policy of establishing a global leadership role for the United States in neutron sciences. However, there has been little investment in education and training.
"To make full use of the scientific potential of the $1.6 billion Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which will be the most intense pulsed neutron source in the world when it is completed in 2006, it's important to educate scientists in neutron techniques," said Michael Snow, IU professor of physics. "An essential part of the solution to this problem is to get more neutron sources into the hands of researchers and students at universities, where faculty can teach students about neutron production and the use of neutrons for solving scientific problems."
The LENS facility has been under construction at IUCF since July 2003 and is expected to provide a major focus for materials research at IU over the next two decades. LENS will produce its first neutrons in early 2005, with full operation scheduled for the summer of 2006. So far, $11.4 million in funding for construction has been obtained from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and Indiana state government.
A major advantage of LENS is that it produces neutrons for research while generating very little radioactivity. "So it's easy to experiment with it. We don't have to shield it as much," Sokol explained. "We'll be able to try new things, as a university is supposed to do," instead of being limited to well-established techniques as other facilities are because of their much larger costs of operation.
Another advantage for IUCF is the management expertise that had to be developed to build and operate the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute with approval from the Food and Drug Administration. MPRI is now treating cancer patients using beams of protons generated by IUCF. The entire therapeutic process and equipment must meet rigorous FDA standards.
"Quality control is what distinguishes us from other academic places," Sokol said. "We have management expertise as well as technical expertise." That is important to companies looking for laboratories where they can do neutron scattering research for industrial purposes.
IUCF also provides particle beams to test radiation's effects on electronic devices that NASA will use in space. Sales from the Radiation Effects Research Program are approaching $750,000 per year, and the program is continuing to expand.