Nuclear physics lab undergoing renovation

The particular accelerator at the Wright Laboratory is being dismantled, to make room for
new research technologies.
The particular accelerator at the Wright Laboratory is being dismantled, to make room for new research technologies. Photo by Yale Daily News.

When it finishes taking down its accelerator, Yale’s Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory will have sped into a modern research frontier.

The three-phase renovation will establish a new research emphasis for the Yale Physics Department: neutrinos and dark matter, both of which have become increasingly important to the field over the past two decades. Yale’s particle accelerator, no longer necessary for the new research, is now in the process of being taken down to create the new facility.

“I think it’s fair to say that Yale is trying to position the Wright Lab to be a leading entity again,” said Karsten Heeger, director of the Wright Lab and Yale physics professor. “It was a player, but [now] we hope it will be able to have an impact that goes beyond what normal universities can do.”

Heeger’s selection as director and the hiring of Yale physics professor Reina Maruyama last year were the final pieces the department needed to shift the renovations into gear, said Paul Tipton, chair of the Yale Physics Department. Tipton added that while neutrinos and dark matter research is not new to Yale, the appointments of Heeger and Maruyama, who specialize in those fields, signal the department’s commitment to the new research direction.

Heeger said the new Wright Lab will include a machine shop, electronics shop and cryogenic lab for testing equipment at extremely low temperatures. In the lab’s underground portion, researchers will be able to test sensitive detectors in large “clean rooms,” highly regulated spaces that are free from above-ground interference caused by cosmic radiation.

Renovations of the lab’s eastern wing began last year, and will be open to undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members starting this July or August. In the meantime, Heeger said, researchers are continuing their work in temporary labs located in the lab’s older spaces. The second phase will likely begin later this year, and the final phase is set to begin in 2015.

Like the workspaces proposed for the Yale Biology Building and Sterling Chemistry Laboratories, Heeger said the renovated Wright labs will be transparent, open spaces that encourage collaboration between researchers and increase interactions with undergraduates. He added that Wright’s location near the middle of campus will also lend itself to attracting undergraduate involvement, unlike similar facilities at other universities that are many miles removed.

“To succeed in our research, you have to have excellent people [and] an excellent infrastructure,” Heeger said. “I think now we have all the ingredients to be a place that can lead.”

Established in 1966 under the direction of D. Allen Bromley, the Wright Lab was recognized as a leading national center for accelerator-based research, Heeger said. In 1987, it replaced its original accelerator with a stronger tandem Van der Graaf accelerator with funding from the Department of Energy.

Most accelerators have been closed over the past 20 years as technology has advanced and physicists have begun exploring new avenues of study, Tipton said. Yale’s accelerator shut down in 2011, and it is now in the process of being removed to make way for the new building.

“The ‘easy,’ small stuff has been done,” Tipton said. “Now we’re doing second-generation experiments where things are getting up to a more industrial scale. We’re scaling everything up in complexity and size.”

Yale physicists requiring accelerators for their research are doing their studies elsewhere, joining a growing community of researchers who are traveling to conduct accelerator research, said Yale physics professor Dan McKinsey. He added that it has become standard practice for physicists to travel to large, national facilities, such as Fermilab in Illinois or the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota, to conduct their experiments. As a result, McKinsey said physics research has become an increasingly collaborative effort.

“More and more, physics is a global enterprise,” McKinsey said.

Heeger said he hopes the renovated Wright Lab will aid collaboration by strengthening Yale physicists’ ties to both each other and the international physics community. In addition to being a site for on-campus research, the lab will also be used for developing experiments that will be conducted abroad. Heeger said he is also working to develop a collaboration with Brookhaven National Laboratories in Long Island, whose proximity will provide an opportunity for University members to benefit from the national lab’s expertise and resources.

Half the Wright might be underground and out of view, Heeger said, but the lab intends for the redesign to make the facility more visible and appealing to the public, and plans to keep the community informed with talks and presentations on current research. Heeger is also in talks with the Peabody Museum to develop an exhibit about the Wright and current research on neutrinos and dark matter.

The Wright Lab is located at the back of Science Hill near Whitney Avenue.

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