Last chance to tour Yale’s landmark particle accelerator

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It’s the end of the line for Yale’s iconic atom smasher, but there will be one more opportunity to eyeball the particle accelerator from the inside.

Yale’s Wright Lab will conduct public tours of its landmark tandem Van de Graaf particle accelerator, which is being removed to make way for a cutting-edge complex of physics labs and classrooms. Tours are set for 10 and 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 15.

The tours will start at the building’s front entrance. No registration is required.

“We will start taking it apart by the end of the year, so now is the time to see it,” said Yale physicist Karsten Heeger, director of the lab. “There is a great deal of interest. I have heard from people all across campus who want to see it, as well as alumni of the lab. I also heard from the son of one of the accelerator’s designers, who wants to come by.”

Tours will be led by Jeff Ashenfelter, associate director of operations and a 25-year veteran of the lab, and technician Frank Lopez. The tours can accommodate a large number of visitors, but only 20 people at a time will be able to go inside the accelerator.

Prior to the public tours, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 13, there will be a Department of Physics reception and tour for faculty and staff. Additional tours of the facility will take place the following week for Yale’s Science Hill planning committee.

The decommissioned particle accelerator is located in an underground facility near the corner of Whitney Avenue and Edwards Street. Painted bright blue, the device is roughly 100 feet long and takes up 10,000 square feet.

When it was first installed in 1987, the accelerator was the highest-energy tandem accelerator in the world. Operating at 22 million volts, it generated high-velocity streams of nuclei. Particles within the stream could be manipulated and directed into adjacent labs for individual experiments. This allowed Yale and visiting researchers to make investigations in nuclear astrophysics, the structure of nuclei, and heavy ion physics.

The site’s original atom smasher was installed in the late 1960s and was upgraded in the 1980s. Its presence, and the leadership of former lab director D. Allan Bromley (science adviser to President George H.W. Bush), signaled Yale’s national prominence in nuclear physics research.

The lab’s next chapter will be highlighted by innovation and international collaboration. As physicists around the world continue their study of nuclei and particles at larger accelerators or underground laboratories, Yale’s Wright Lab will build the instrumentation needed for those efforts. The lab will pursue a broad range of research in nuclear, particle, and astrophysics, including the study of subatomic particles known as neutrinos, as well as the search for the hypothesized material known as dark matter.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” Heeger said. “We can build new labs, clean rooms, and facilities for student education and rapid prototyping. Wright Lab will be a place where we can develop instrumentation here at Yale, and then use it in experiments worldwide.”

Yale shut down the tandem Van de Graaf accelerator in 2011. Since then, ancillary equipment has been parceled out to other research institutions around the nation. Over the past year, insulating gas from the accelerator’s main tank has been pumped out of the chamber.

Removal of the massive tank will commence as early as next spring.

“We want to press ahead,” Heeger said. “What we’re doing is thinking about where this field is going and how we can play a role in that. If we can achieve a fraction of what Bromley achieved, we will have done well.”

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