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Cornell particle accelerator facility expands, new military funding rolls in

Schumer spot 2

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — Cornell University is expanding a massive underground research facility after a two-year delay during the pandemic.

The $32 million project will upgrade equipment at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, or CHESS. The CHESS particle accelerator is one of only a handful of its kind in the country. Visiting scientists use the high-powered X-rays generated by the facility to study atomic structure.

The new expansion will upgrade one of the research stations to include a high-powered electromagnet. The station will allow researchers to manipulate and examine individual atoms within a sample.

The university expects the project will generate about 150 new research jobs and another 150 temporary construction jobs. Funding for the project was awarded in 2020, but the pandemic has delayed the upgrade.

The CHESS facility consists of a circular tunnel about a half-mile around and seven individual X-ray research stations. It all sits about 60 feet underneath Cornell University's running track. Electrons and other subatomic particles are accelerated at high speed within the tunnel.

"The particles have accelerated a few 100,000 times around the ring, just in the few moments we've been talking," said Tim O'Connell, director of operations at CHESS.

When electrons are accelerated within the tunnel, they generate X-ray radiation, which scientists can use to determine the way atoms are arranged in an individual sample. Researchers from all around the world go there to use the seven research stations, or beamlines, to learn about the atomic structure of everything from viral proteins to new materials used in fighter jets. 

"We can have seven different researchers here, you know, studying completely different fields of science," said Katie Moring, an operations manager at CHESS. "There might be people studying biology at one beamline, and art history at another, and chemical reactions at another."

One ongoing project at the facility is a partnership with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. That military project brought in a big funding boost of $8.5 million in the most recent federal spending bill. 

The Air Force project is developing new lightweight materials for use in military aircraft and testing the way that certain military-grade materials wear out over time.

Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer was on hand at the CHESS facility this month to announce the new funding.

"CHESS has created discoveries that led to two Nobel Prizes, amazingly enough," Schumer said. "It supports our military, it strengthens our American manufacturing."

Ten years ago, when the facility was at risk of closure, Schumer secured funding to keep it open.

Schumer also used the opportunity to promote his proposed United States Innovation and Competition bill. The sprawling, 2,376-page bill includes a big funding boost for STEM research and education, which could benefit facilities like CHESS. It also includes extensive trade and diplomatic restrictions on China and its citizens. The bill passed the Senate last year; the House passed its version of the legislation in February