WMU News

Physics department upgrades research capabilities

Sept. 18, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- One of the crown jewels of Western Michigan University's research facilities will be getting a facelift, or to be more precise, a "belt lift."

The 90,000-pound Tandem Van de Graaff particle accelerator is one of 15 in the country and has been housed in the basement of Rood Hall since1969. It will receive a belt upgrade in December, courtesy of a $115,086 grant from the National Science Foundation. The accelerator has been a mainstay for Department of Physics research programs for more than 30 years, with much of the research supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and serving as a basis for numerous master's-level and doctoral projects.

What makes the accelerator useful is its ability to generate an electrical charge of as much as six million volts.

"Many people have seen Van de Graff generators in science museums. They have a rubber belt like a wide rubber band to carry an electric charge to a high-voltage terminal," says Steve Ferguson, WMU accelerator physicist. "The high voltages can be used for fun things like making people's hair stand on end."

Research involving WMU's Van de Graaff accelerator goes beyond raising hair, however. It operates for more than 1,500 hours each year, and feeds four "beam lines"--three that are devoted to faculty and graduate student research, and one for educational purposes. Currently, the accelerator is used for several atomic and nuclear physics research projects as well as for community outreach projects. Each spring for instance, math and science students from Kalamazoo-area high schools take part in a re-enactment of the Rutheford Experiment using the accelerator. That famous 1910 experiment revealed the nuclear structure of atoms.

The December upgrade will involve replacing the accelerator's heart, otherwise known as the high voltage generator, a cotton belt covered with vulcanized rubber. A "pelletron," which looks like a fat bicycle chain with metal pellets and alternating nylon links, will take its place.

"The rubber belt is a problem because some parts of the belt carry more of a charge than others," says Ferguson. "The new pelletron chain will deliver a charge that is much more uniform."

There will also be less of a mess.

"A fine rubber dust wears off the belt, coating the inside of the generator. The belts then wear out and each requires $8,000 and many man-hours to replace," says Ferguson.

The new belt will advance the research capabilities of the department, according to Ferguson, who says the upgrade is "a significant milestone for our program and will insure that the accelerator will continue to be useful for many more years."

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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