Brookhaven Lab chosen as site for multibillion-dollar collider

Carl MacGowan for Newsday

January 09, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on January 09, 2020.

A multibillion-dollar high-speed atom smasher — an electron-ion collider that is capable of dissecting the mysterious subatomic material that forms the basis of everything in the universe — will be built at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, federal authorities announced Thursday.

The collider will be the first of its kind in the United States. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said it would create about 4,000 construction jobs, retain 1,000 existing jobs at the lab and generate billions of dollars in economic activity for Long Island.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Energy said construction of the federally funded collider — which would be 2.4 miles in circumference, or 60% larger than the 1.5-mile Belmont Park horse race track, and one story underground — would cost $1.6 billion to $2.6 billion and take about a decade.

It is expected to open about 2030 and is intended to keep the United States at the forefront of high-end scientific research.

Paul Dabbar, undersecretary for science at the Energy Department, said the collider “will have great impact on the economy and jobs across the country” and would have applications for practical uses benefiting ordinary citizens. He noted that similar facilities have led to breakthroughs in nuclear medicine for treatment of cancer.

Scientists from around the world are expected to come to Brookhaven to study the inner workings of the atomic nucleus, the tiny but dense center of the atom.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the news “huge” for the local economy and for legions of science researchers expected to visit the facility in the coming decades.

“This is one of the most important announcements for Long Island in a decade,” Schumer said Thursday. “It's a great way to start the new decade.”

Brookhaven currently employs about 2,500 permanent staff and hosts hundreds of visiting scientists annually.

While supercolliders have existed for years at Brookhaven and other federal facilities, scientists across the country have clamored for years for development of a 21st-century version that would let them delve deeper into cosmic mysteries such as quarks and gluons, the smaller parts of protons and neutrons.

State and Long Island officials lobbied hard to bring the collider to Brookhaven, arguing the 73-year-old lab was uniquely positioned to operate it.

The state committed $165 million — including $65 million for Stony Brook University, which co-manages the lab — worth of infrastructure and data upgrades to boost Brookhaven's chances of landing the collider.

“Today’s announcement validates our regionally-focused economic development efforts and our commitment to growing Long Island’s biotech corridor into the heart of scientific discovery in the United States,” Cuomo said.

The Brookhaven lab website describes the high-speed particle accelerator as “a discovery machine for unlocking the secrets of the ‘glue’ that binds the building blocks of visible matter in the universe.”

Brookhaven, one of 17 national laboratories owned by the Energy Department, was chosen over Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, officials said. Federal officials picked Brookhaven in large part because it is home to the relativistic heavy ion collider, or RHIC, a massive underground machine capable of replicating the origins of the universe.

Brookhaven also hosts the National Synchrotron Light Source II, capable of producing the world's brightest light.

The electron-ion collider, also called an EIC, will be integrated into the RHIC, which will be gradually phased out and retired by 2024, Dabbar said. 

The new collider includes two intersecting accelerators, with one producing an intense electron beam and the other emitting protons or heavier atomic material. The accelerators steer the beams into head-on collisions, breaking them apart so scientists can examine their component parts, the Brookhaven lab website says.

Scientists know relatively little about the atomic nucleus, the atom's microscopic center composed of protons and neutrons. Researchers have assumed that the nucleus must be incomprehensibly strong — one of the most powerful forces in nature — but until now they have had no way of knowing for sure how it works.

As tiny as they are, protons and neutrons are composed of the even smaller quarks and gluons. Scientists think they can develop a better understanding of atoms if they can unlock the secrets of the unpredictable quarks and gluons.

The collider will smash atoms into even tinier pieces, releasing the protons and neutrons so their components can be scrutinized by scientists, officials said. 

“The electron beam will reveal the arrangement of the quarks and gluons that make up the protons and neutrons of nuclei,” the Brookhaven website says. “The EIC will allow us to study this ‘strong nuclear force’ and the role of gluons in the matter within and all around us.”  

Long Island officials were quick to hail the collider as a major feather in the cap of Long Island, long a hub of scientific research with institutions such as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the former Grumman Aerospace Corp.

In a statement, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said the collider “will inject billions of dollars and an extensive number of jobs into New York’s First Congressional District, all while churning out scores of scientific discoveries that help us understand the world around us, harness the untapped potential of the natural world and, from human health to our national security and beyond, benefit nearly every aspect of our lives.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said the collider would bring new cash and jobs to a section of eastern Long Island that is expected to expand with the construction of new homes and businesses. “It means money circulating through the local economy,” Romaine said.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) called the project “a critical step in establishing Long Island as the center of innovation and technology.”

Long Island Association chief executive Kevin Law said in a prepared statement that the announcement was “terrific news for Long Island and will continue our region’s efforts to develop a 21st-century innovation economy and a research corridor on Long Island.”

A LONG TIME COMING

10 / Number of years construction is expected to take

4,000 / Number of construction jobs it is expected to generate

$1.6B-$2.6B / Cost to build the collider, which is federally funded

2.4 / Circumference in miles for the collider