Student Research: Edwards Accelerator Lab

Samantha Thrush,

This year I was fortunate enough to gain an undergrad research position at the Edwards Accelerator Lab on campus. You might be thinking to yourself, “Wait. We have a particle accelerator on campus?” Yes, we do, and it was not made obsolete by the newer CERN-LHC accelerator in Switzerland.  Also, it’s not as dangerous as most people think particle accelerators are.

When I tell people where I work, I usually make them nervous. For example, when I told my family that I would work in an accelerator lab, I got anything from “That’s wonderful!” to “Please be safe! I don’t want you to get irradiated.” After a while, it became sort of a game, trying to explain to people that I really was safe at work and what working there was like, but in the most amusing way possible. Through all of those conversations, I found humorous rules and things to remember about working in an accelerator lab.

Rule 1: Never lick your fingers, or anything else for that matter.

Yes, this may sound very stupid and sort of obvious, but not for the reason of sanitation: there can be tritium contamination (heavy hydrogen) on anything in the accelerator. But the upside to this? If you think you might have been contaminated, the best thing to do is to drink beer or caffeine. Both do a wonderful job of cleaning out your body of anything that might cause chronic or acute radiation poisoning in addition to chemical poisoning!

Rule 2: Never bring pennies to the accelerator lab.

No, I’m not saying that they’ll get stolen. What I am saying is that if you lose them there, there is a chance that they could become low level radioactive waste, which means that carrying those pennies around could irradiate you more than normal.  This happens when copper gets irradiated, causing it to acquire a neutron, creating copper-64, which is prone to beta decay. Long story short: the accelerator lab isn’t a Take-A-Penny-Leave-A-Penny.

Rule 3: Remember – you’re not at the LHC

This isn’t really a rule, so much as just something to keep in mind when people ask. The Edwards Accelerator is technically a 4.5 megavolt tandem accelerator. What is that? It’s like a huge Van de Graaff generator (those huge metal balls that create static electricity) where negative atoms are pulled into the accelerator, their electrons are stripped away, and the remaining positive ions are then accelerated down the beam line by high voltages and steered by magnets.

This is different from the Large Hadron Collider. That is a large particle collider located under Switzerland and France. It was booted up for the first time in 2008 (remember the theories that it would create black holes?) and was then shut down after 9 days of operation after a mechanical failure. After two years of repairs, they finally were able to get the accelerator up and running. This meant that for the first time in human history, we had a 3.5 tera-electron volt (3.5 * 10^12 electron volt!) accelerator. This is about as powerful as the energy of a mosquito in flight focused down to a couple atoms. This doesn’t sound like much, but this allows the particles in the accelerator to go up to 0.9999999999 times the speed of light. On a side note, the LHC is currently shut down for repairs until 2015, at which point it will be booted back up and will be running at 6.9 TeV, almost twice its former energy.

The reason why all accelerators aren’t obsolete now is because each accelerator that runs at a different voltage is capable of optimally running different experiments. Thus, the LHC didn’t spell the end of all other accelerators.

Rule 4: Wear your film badge!

In case you’re wondering, a film badge is not a badge to allow you to take pictures of anything in the accelerator lab. Instead it’s something much cooler – a badge with a piece of photographic film in it that tracks your radiation exposure over a month. If the film is too exposed after a month, you simply have to cut down on how much radiation you are receiving. In case you’re wondering, 5 milliRems (0.5 Seiverts) is the maximum amount of radiation I can receive on the job. To put it into perspective, you receive 390 microSeiverts (that’s 3.9 x 10-8 Seiverts) yearly through your potassium intake (usually from bananas and even your own bones), and 4 milliSeiverts (4 x 10-3) just through being outside and living. Since the accelerator is built into a hill, I actually receive, on average, less radiation than what I would otherwise – simply because the earth is shielding a lot of the radiation that I would receive.

And one of my favorites…

Rule 5: If someone says it’s heavy, believe them!

This is not really particular to working at an accelerator lab, but with all of the heavy machinery and all of the components of the beam line, yes, there will be things that need to be lifted. But that does not mean that YOU should lift them! It is very interesting, however, to be able to work on such heavy machinery, such as beam line air compressor pumps, which help keep the vacuum held strong on the beam line.

So, in conclusion, working at the accelerator is awesome. You get to work with knowledgeable professors and grad students, and you get hands on experience. You also get to work on one of the very few accelerators in the state of Ohio. If you are interested, this position is given out through the PACE program, so keep a heads up – and remember the rules!


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