In a non-descript building at the corner of University Drive and Spence Streets sits one of the hardest-working, unsung teaching and research heroes to be found on the entire 5,200-acre Texas A&M University campus.

But don't let the faded beige exterior of the Luedecke Cyclotron Institute Building fool you. Inside beats the heart of a champion for technical and educational innovation to benefit Texas, the nation and a plethora of public-private projects and purposes across the globe.

For more than four decades since the commissioning of its original cyclotron in 1967, the Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute has served as the core of the university's nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry program, educating thousands of students in accelerator-based science and technology. As one of only four university-based, United States Department of Energy-funded laboratories, the institute is home to one of a handful of K500 superconducting cyclotrons worldwide as well as a variety of sophisticated detectors and spectrometers that enhance its unmatched capability for nuclear research.

For nearly 7,000 hours each year, ion beams zip relatively unnoticed through the high-powered K500 at near-light-speed under the watchful eye of scientists who closely monitor the sensitive diagnostic and specialized components that keep this high-tech workhorse in motion and in-demand for a bevy of external clients and research collaborators. Nearly 30 staff members and countless teams of graduate students alternate round-the-clock shifts to oversee the facility and meet the needs of the campus research community as well as those of the roughly 50 major companies and agencies -- from Boeing and Lockheed-Martin to NASA and the Naval Surface Warfare Center -- that rent experimentation time on the equipment for their own research projects, to the tune of nearly $3 million each year.

"By making the facility available to outside users, we also are generating revenue which helps us operate the facility -- in that sense, providing a better service for the research that we do and the graduate students we support," says Dr. Robert E. Tribble, distinguished professor of physics and director of the Cyclotron Institute since 2003. "We're able to maintain a better facility and to do some upgrading, in part, because we have multiple groups for which we are able to provide accelerator time."

Nestled deep within the 49,000-square-foot facility, the K500 cyclotron beams weave through a variety of sophisticated spectrometers and ion guides that track critical information about the beams that pass through it. Since the institute first began radiation-effects testing in 1995, Tribble says its scientists have continued to enhance the K500's capacity to accelerate ions of many different atomic elements at lightning-fast speeds, allowing for several varieties of radiation analysis, most notably Single Event Effects (SEE) testing that uses both heavy and light ions.

Used by well-known agencies such as Johnson Space Center, NASA and the Pentagon, SEE testing determines how effectively satellite equipment -- for example, integrated circuits -- can withstand cosmic radiation. Tribble says approximately half of their time annually spent accelerating particle beams is for companies who want to test their devices against high levels of radiation.

"If components on a satellite fail, it can result in a total loss that might be on the order of a billion dollars or so for the satellite plus the launch," Tribble adds. "Such a failure occurred several years ago on a Department of Defense satellite. The part that failed was not tested here, but when they checked it after the fact, indeed it failed the beam test."

Tribble notes that, by the mid-1990s, smaller, more efficient integrated circuits had replaced the large, clunky circuit boards that once controlled vital components of most satellites, making them cheaper and less bulky but far more susceptible to radiation damage due to their compact structure. SEE testing helps scientists take some of the guesswork out of how their new technology will perform in the harsh environment of outer space before the equipment is actually launched, potentially saving their employers -- in many cases, U.S. taxpayers -- from considerable financial loss, not to mention exponentially crippling reputational damage.

"Most of the testing we do here is defense-related," says Dr. Henry Clark, facility supervisor and an accelerator physicist. "Essentially, all the layers of a circuit board, which may have been several boards, are now one small integrated circuit, and that means a radiation ion can go through all of the devices at one time and destroy the whole thing. Satellites made of these integrated circuits won't last in space at all, so aerospace engineers have to come here and test the equipment."

One additional feature of the K500 that sets it apart from most other cyclotrons is its ability to test the radiation effects of ion beams on equipment in mid-air without the use of a vacuum, saving valuable time and, therefore, money. While low-energy cyclotrons require nearly an entire day for equipment setup and testing inside a vacuum chamber, Clark says that the K500's in-air testing feature requires only a third of that time, piquing the interest of many national organizations, defense and otherwise.

Clark adds that ion beams are accelerated for other purposes and clients ranging from businesses to universities simply to better understand nuclear reactions and major uncertainties in astrophysics, such as the Big Bang, stellar evolution and the dynamics of supernovae explosions. State-of-the-art tools, such as the advanced charged-particle detection system Neutron Ion Multidetector for Reaction Oriented Dynamics (NIMROD) and a group of detectors capable of isotopic resolution called the Forward Array Using Silicon Technology (FAUST), measure critical dynamic and thermodynamic information by detecting the fragments of each particle collision.

The K500's immense popularity has helped pave the way for much-need structural improvements to the overall institute facilities -- upgrades that Tribble says will significantly expand Texas A&M's capacity for future nuclear science research once the K500 is capable of accelerating radioactive ion beams at energies higher than those possible at any other facility. Thanks to recent DOE and Robert A. Welch Foundation grants ($1.8 million and $1 million, respectively), the institute has completed the reactivation of its original 88-inch cyclotron, the K150, which is now being used to produce radioactive isotopes for the Texas A&M Institute for Preclinical Studies (TIPS) to test experimental treatments for cancer and other medical conditions, a study that Tribble predicts will have far-reaching potential.

"This is a new avenue for us to be part of a program that does isotope production around the country," Tribble explains. "That's a direction we've talked about going, and there's lots of interest in that possibility."

External excitement and income potential aside, the Cyclotron Institute attracts equal amounts of national attention for its educational capabilities as well as its research innovation. The institute successfully balances a bustling experimental testing and analysis schedule with the demands of Texas A&M's nationally respected graduate programs in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry. Tribble says institute scientists and affiliated research personnel take a hands-on approach to educating and training more than two dozen students each year, mentoring them as they learn to design, build and operate the very ion detectors and spectrometers used during all institute-related research, internal and external.

According to Dr. Sherry J. Yennello, Regents Professor of Chemistry and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Science, the success rates of graduate students who have gone on to utilize their Cyclotron Institute training -- whether in industry or academia -- speaks for itself, especially in light of the increasing national demand for nuclear physicists.

"I don't know of a single person who hasn't had a job waiting for them when they get done," says Yennello, a member of the Cyclotron Institute since 1993.

In addition, since 2004 the institute has sponsored a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, in which undergraduate students from across the nation come to campus each summer for a 10-week investigation of accelerator-based nuclear science under the tutelage of some of the state's most esteemed physicists and chemists.

"There is huge investment in the Cyclotron, so it's only fair that we reach out to students who want to have these opportunities in the nuclear workforce," Yennello adds.

For more information on the Cyclotron Institute and related teaching and research efforts, visit http://cyclotron.tamu.edu/.


Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Robert E. Tribble, (979) 845-1411 or tribble@comp.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Core Value

    The Luedecke Cyclotron Institute Building is home to one of only four university-based, United States Department of Energy-funded laboratories that serves as the core of Texas A&M University's nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry program.

  • K500 Cyclotron

    The institute's current mainstay, the K500 superconducting cyclotron, is one of only five worldwide and the heart of a nuclear science research program that brings in $3 million annually in external use and testing.

  • K150 Cyclotron

    The original K150 cyclotron, recently refurbished with the help of grants from the Department of Energy and the Robert A. Welch Foundation.

  • Supplying the Demand

    The Cyclotron Institute fulfills valuable campus research support as well as educational roles, teaching and training more than two dozen graduate students each year in response to an increasing national demand for nuclear physicists.

  • Upgrades & Improvements

    The Cyclotron Institute has expanded steadily since commissioning its original cyclotron in 1967. This facility layout shows the variety of sophisticated detectors and spectrometers that currently enhance the institute's capacity for nuclear research.

  • Dr. Robert E. Tribble

  • Dr. Henry Clark

  • Dr. Sherry J. Yennello

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