SOUTH BEND Ind. — Scientists at the University of Notre Dame and elsewhere have begun using a new $4 million nuclear accelerator to study the origin of elements and the chemical evolution of the universe.
Physics professor Michael Wiescher said the accelerator’s primary use is to study astrophysics. It will be used by scientists at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics, a collaboration among Notre Dame, Michigan State University, the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
But the accelerator also can be employed for other purposes, such as testing the effects of radiation on spacecraft, helping to determine the age of archaeological finds and testing artificial joints for wear and tear. “So there are a lot of applications,” Wiescher said Thursday.
One of the primary uses of the accelerator is to try to simulate the reactions that take place in stars by shooting a charged particle into a gas, which causes a nuclear reaction and forms different elements that power the sun, Wiescher said.
“Those are basically the same nuclear reactions that build up and form new elements and generate the energy and power the sun,” he said.
By measuring those changes and comparing it to studies done by astronomers, scientists can understand the origins of stars, he said.
The accelerator is the first funded by the National Science Foundation at a university in nearly a quarter century. The university, which spent $4 million on the building that houses the 30-foot high accelerator, dedicated the device during a ceremony Thursday.
H. Frederick Dylla, executive director and chief executive officer of the American Institute of Physics, said the new accelerator at Notre Dame is significant because maintaining a strong base of research facilities, especially at research universities, is essential for the nation’s economic health and security.
Dylla said the 5 million-volt accelerator at Notre Dame can’t conduct the kind of cutting-edge research done at the very large national and international accelerator facilities, such as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., but is essential in expanding knowledge of basic nuclear physics.
“This energy range continues to provide clues on the formation of elements within stars, and overlaps the range needed for some of the most important applications to materials science nuclear medicine and forensics,” Dylla said.
The first nuclear accelerator at the University of Notre Dame was constructed in 1936 and was the third built in the United States and the fifth in the world, Wiescher said. The second one at Notre Dame was finished in 1942 and was involved in the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, he said. There have been several more generations since then.
The university also will continue to use an older accelerator that is more powerful but produces a less intense beam for other experiments, Wiescher said.
He said the accelerators are used by more than 20 countries around the world.