brookhaven-lab

A PET Prototype

This device from the 1960s is an early prototype of a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner. Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Lab built this circular version of the PET scanner to image small brain tumors and nicknamed it the Head-Shrinker.

PET scans work after radioisotope tracers are introduced into the patient. The imaging equipment picks up gamma rays emitted as a result of the isotope’s decay. The system allows for functional imaging of processes throughout the body. The device is now used for research and to diagnose certain cancers, brain diseases and heart problems.

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This is pretty mind-blowing news. A game changer.
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Brookhaven astrophysicist Anže Slozar reacting to the first evidence of gravitational waves from the Big Bang, reported this morning from the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole.

The stunning result shows that cosmic inflation theory – the idea that the universe underwent an extremely rapid and violent expansion in its early moments – can be proven through direct observation of ripples in the light from the Big Bang. The BICEP2 team found patterns of swirls caused by gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background, light left over from the birth of the universe. 

Slozar goes on: “If confirmed this will most likely be a Nobel prize. People always hoped to detect gravity waves from the early universe to learn about inflation, but nobody had an idea how strong they might be and nobody dared to hope that they might be as bright as the BICEP2 data suggest. (In fact, they are so bright that they evade some earlier limits from a different measurement, so obviously we are not at the end of the story). Again, the signal is so strong that we can really go and characterize it and learn a lot about the early universe and fundamental physics.”

Back in 1969, thousands of Long Islanders came to Brookhaven to see a piece of the moon – a 12-gram chunk of a larger rock brought back to Earth by Apollo 11 astronauts. Scientists at the Lab analyzed many samples of lunar rocks and soil, finding that the rocks they examined had been on the moon’s surface for 30 to 50 million years. 

The young boy peering into the magnifying glass actually contacted us a few years ago. He remembered the event and having his picture taken even 35 years later. Our Lab has been inspiring young'uns for decades and today we educate nearly 40,000 students every year. 

(PS: You don’t have to be a grade-school kid to be floored by the simple fact that we brought back rocks from the moon.)

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Neutrinos are electrically neutral subatomic particles that mostly pass right through matter without interacting with it. They are one of the fundamental building blocks that make up our universe. Yet because they rarely interact with other things, they are not well understood and the subject of intense scientific interest.

An international group of researchers have been using a facility in southern China called the Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment to learn about the elusive particle. There, researchers are specifically trying to understand a phenomenon displayed by neutrinos in which they oscillate between three different forms: electron, muon and tau.

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Achievement of the day

I convinced the technicians at the light source to name the wigglers and undulators — huge pieces of technology that bend x-rays and send them down to where we shoot them through samples of materials — after Muppets. The big green one is Kermit, the blue one is Gonzo, the purple one is Telly, and the red one is Elmo. If that actually catches on, it will be my greatest legacy at Brookhaven National Lab. 

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As you read this, we’re making, mapping, and modeling materials 100,000 times smaller than the width of one hair on your head. For real.

Want to know how we’re making nanoscale discoveries that will shape everything from ultra-efficient solar panels to spintronic devices with absurd data storage capacities? Check out this video overview of our Center for Functional Nanomaterials.

The first diffraction pattern from the brightest synchrotron light source in the world is here! The electrons whizzing around at nearly the speed of light at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source II create a high-energy x-ray beam, which was steered toward a sample of sulfur-doped tantalum selenide just yesterday. When the beam hits the sample, the x-rays scatter off the atoms within the material, creating this gorgeous array of rings. 

This special compound has a strange characteristic: At low temperatures, electrons in both the pure tantalum selenide and sulfur-doped tantalum compounds spontaneously form into charge density waves, like ripples on the surface of a pond. These ripples have different wavelengths, and when they cross over one another, instead of canceling out electronic activity, they surprisingly create superconductivity – the pure lossless transfer of electricity.  

“It is like mixing red paint and white paint, and instead of getting pink you get blue after mixing,” said professor Simon Billinge, joint appointee with Brookhaven and Columbia University. Data from the X-ray Powder Diffraction beamline will help us understand how charge density waves in materials may lead to superconductivity. That’s super important for our nation’s energy future, but it also means we’ll have some more beautiful diffraction patterns to gaze at. Lucky us. 

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These cool images are a bit reminiscent of snowflakes, right? Not quite. Think warmer…much, much warmer. 

Stars are the grandmasters of energy generation. Inside the hot, gravity-crunched heart of the sun, atoms fuse together and unleash tremendous amounts of energy. The sunlight that illuminates and warms our planet after a 93-million-mile journey is the direct product of fusion. Fusion is an incredible source of energy, and it’s one that our scientists are learning more about, but it’s tough to study in a lab. (All that heat would melt things, including the ground.)

So how can an earthbound laboratory replicate a stellar-scale furnace? These colorful starbursts are actually computer simulations that map out one potential source of terrestrial fusion: supersonic jets crashing into plasma blobs. Yep, jets and blobs.

At Brookhaven, our scientists use sophisticated simulations to test the feasibility of this approach to fusion. In the computational model, 30 supersonic plasma jets blaze—at speeds beyond 224,000 miles per hour—into a spherical chamber from all directions, spread slightly, and then collide with each other to form a ring of intense energy. This ring then collapses, imploding onto a plasma blob target. If everything goes according to plan, the ionized atoms of the target then fuse and produce tremendous amounts of usable energy.

The top image shows the plasma density, and the bottom one shows the degree of ionization.

Here at Brookhaven, we rang in the new year with a big milestone. Engineers at our new National Synchrotron Light Source II (the enormous silver ring building in the photo) began commissioning the accelerators and boosters  that will push electrons to very nearly the speed of light to produce x-rays and UV rays that scientists will use to explore all kinds of materials, from biological samples to battery cores. 

Late on December 31, our technicians turned on the light source. They fired the electron gun (a hot cathode in a vacuum that produces electrons), sped the electrons up in the linear accelerator, and then shot them around the half-mile ring in the wee hours of January 1. The electrons reached three billion electron volts, the maximum design energy of the new facility. 

In the coming year, we’ll be testing all the parts of the accelerators, and then we’ll be opening up the beamlines for some hard-core science! 

An artist’s concept of the new measurement of the size of the Universe, based on data taken from the Baryonic Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey project.

The gray spheres show the pattern of the “baryon acoustic oscillations” from the early Universe. Galaxies today have a slight tendency to align on the spheres (the alignment is greatly exaggerated in this illustration). By comparing the size of the spheres (the white line) to the predicted value, astronomers can determine to one-percent accuracy how far away the galaxies are.

Combined with recent measures of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) and supernova measures of accelerating expansion, the BOSS results suggest that dark energy – the force thought to be driving universal expansion – is a cosmological constant whose strength does not vary in space or time. This finding doesn’t quite line up with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and researchers say that “understanding the physical cause of the accelerated expansion remains one of the most interesting problems in modern physics.”

The BOSS data “also provides one of the best-ever determinations of the curvature of space. The answer is, it’s not curved much. One of the reasons we care is that a flat universe has implications for whether the universe is infinite,” says David Schlegel, a physicist from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

He says this research tells us that while we can’t say with certainty that it will never come to an end, it’s pretty likely that the universe continues on in space forever. 

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Brookhaven’s first synchrotron light source has a ring of magnets about as big around as a carousel, as you can see in the historic photo at the top. That was taken back in the 80s, when the the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) was being commissioned. NSLS has been operating for 32 years, accelerating a beam of electrons that provide high energy x-rays, along with ultraviolet and infrared light beams. 

This year, we will shut down NSLS and open NSLS-II across the street. Our new facility is so big that to capture the entire ring we had to take a shot from the air. Inside that enormous building sits a ring of magnets very similar to the ones at NSLS, though there are many more of them. NSLS-II is a half-mile ring that will create x-rays 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor. 

These two shots show just how far we’ve come and how big the upgrade will be. NSLS-II will allow for the most cutting-edge science, and will have beams of light that will let scientists take images of materials down to the nanometer - that’s one-billionth of a meter! - made from electrons whizzing around at nearly the speed of light.