Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
I spend so much time on this radio show celebrating far-flung scientific pursuits—from the quest to map the innermost reaches of the human brain, to pioneering space voyages to the outermost reaches of the solar system—that it’s easy to overlook scientific milestones that are happening in my own backyard.
But a new research facility has come on line right here on Long Island that has the potential to revolutionize exploration and experimentation in just about every one of the physical sciences. It’s called the National Synchrotron Light Source II, a $900 million Department of Energy project out at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and it’s kind of a big deal.
“It will have enormous impact in a broad range of fields, especially in energy science, which is one of the drivers for its creation in the first place. But more broadly, in life sciences, condensed matter physics, material science, geology, medicine, engineering, you name it. A broad, broad impact in science generally.”
That’s BNL Director Doon Gibbs, at the dedication ceremony for the National Synchrotron Light Source II back in February. But what makes the NSLS-II such a scientific game changer?
Let’s start with the basics, because if you don’t know what a synchrotron is, I might as well be talking about a flux capacitor, or any other vaguely sciencey-sounding gizmo.
A synchrotron is a kind of particle accelerator, like the Large Hadron Collider that you’ve probably heard about. But a synchrotron uses synchronized magnetic fields to channel electrons into very tightly focused, high-energy beams traveling at nearly the speed of light.
The machine then uses different magnetic fields that act as undulators, or wigglers, to shake the beam up and cause it to emit different types of radiation. This process produces intensely bright x-ray, ultraviolet and infrared light.
And in the case of the National Synchrotron Light Source II, that light will be so bright that it will act as kind of a giant microscope that will enable scientists to observe chemical processes and interactions happening in real-time, on the molecular scale. They call it in operando experimentation, and the NSLS-II will help shine a light on how stuff works on the most fundamental levels.
Here’s Esther Takeuchi, a BNL Chief Scientist and a world-leading expert in energy storage, speaking at the dedication ceremony:
“I’ve worked in energy storage for a number of years, and… when I started the only way to figure out what was going on in a battery was to cut it apart, look at the pieces and hope you could figure it out. And now we’ve moved to the realm of true in-operando, where with a light source like NSLS-II, we can gain unprecedented resolution, faster than ever, to see what’s happening in an actual working battery without modifying it. And I believe that this really is going to lead to unprecedented insight, unprecedented ability to solve the challenges that can contribute to addressing the energy needs of the world as we move forward.”
Since BNL operates under the auspices of the Department of Energy, it makes sense that advanced energy research will be a chief priority of the NSLS-II, including alternative fuel sources, solar energy, and advances in nuclear power. The light source will also allow scientists to map the molecular makeup of any given material, with the aim of creating the advanced materials necessary to spur scientific progress.
Now extrapolate these capabilities onto the physical, chemical, engineering and biological sciences and you begin to understand why the NSLS-II holds so much potential for unprecedented scientific advancement.
In fact, over the last 30 years, the original National Synchrotron Light Source spurred Nobel Prize-winning-level research, and was used to explore everything from nerve impulses and bone density, to the development of nanomaterials, superconductors and better batteries.
The NSLS-II will produce light up to 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor and dramatically reduce the time between experiments. So not only will it usher in new scientific advances, but it will do so at a much more rapid pace. As BNL Director Doon Gibbs said at the dedication ceremony:
“It will enable new techniques and create opportunities that we can’t imagine today, and frankly, that’s one of the most exciting things about a day like today. It’s that you can’t really see what’s coming years from now.”
So far only a handful of NSLS-II’s beam lines have been activated, but they’re already generating experimental results. BNL will activate more than 60 additional beam lines over the next five to ten years, attracting 4,500 researchers from all over the world. And once all those beams get humming, BNL will literally become the world’s brightest scientific light.
Now consider this. Brookhaven National Lab is just one part of a broader network of world-class scientific research facilities here on Long Island—including Cold Spring Harbor Labs and SUNY Stony Brook. With such a vast reservoir of scientific talent to draw from, the potential breakthroughs of the National Synchrotron Light Source II become unimaginable. But there’s one thing that we can be certain of: Long Islanders will be shaping the face of scientific advancement for generations to come.