APS News

Wisconsin Synchrotron Center Goes Dark

By Michael Lucibella

Construction of 1.0 GeV Aladdin electron storage ring
Construction of the 1.0 GeV Aladdin electron storage ring in 1981.
Photo courtesy of Synchrotron Radiation Center, University of Wisconsin

In mid-March one of the country’s remaining synchrotron light sources switched off for the last time. The Synchrotron Research Center (SRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shut down after thirty years of use when funding for its continued operation failed to emerge.

“It’s not that we’re a sleepy little institution waiting to be turned off. We were producing real world-class science here,” said Joseph Bisognano, the director of the synchrotron center.

The $5 million center is home to the Aladdin storage ring with twenty-one attached beamlines.  The compact machine’s specialty was ultraviolet and soft X-ray research, and recently the facility installed an infrared beamline.

Berkeley’s Advanced Light Source is the only other major source of soft X-rays in the United States. The closure of the SRC represents the shuttering of roughly 40 percent of the nation’s soft X-ray and ultraviolet beamlines.

Following a review panel’s recommendations, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced in 2011 that it would soon stop funding the center. NSF provided about two years worth of bridge funding for the university to operate the machine while searching for new revenue sources.

“In the end, nothing materialized,” said Steve Ackerman, the associate dean for physical sciences at the university.

Guebre Tessema, the program director for NSF’s Division of Materials Research who led the review panel, said that they reached their decision partially based on the budget constraints, but primarily on the desire to prioritize the development of new tools and techniques over long-established facilities.

“It’s a period where fundamental changes are taking place with third-generation light sources coming online [and] fourth generation light sources in development. In that context, NSF had to think strategically,” Tessema said.

The matter essentially came down to a choice between Wisconsin’s SRC or the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, and NSF ultimately opted for the latter.

“This was a competitive process and the decision was made to give an award to a competitor,” said Mary Galvin, NSF’s director of the Division of Materials Research.

Bisognano said that he felt that the decision was influenced by political pressure for NSF to reduce its budget. He said that the lab was being shut down despite having received several excellent NSF reviews in recent years.

“We’re large enough to count [for closing] but small enough to not create a lot of political repercussions,” Bisognano said. “That’s all I can figure because it was a very cost-effective facility at $5 million a year.”

Galvin disagreed. “They really are science decisions, trying to optimize the science that we can get,” Galvin said. “We have a lot of proposals that get very positive assessments that we don’t fund.”

The synchrotron’s last run was on March 7. The university will soon start to disassemble the machine after workers finish cataloguing and locating buyers for some of the more valuable parts.

“There are a few instruments that we hope to send to a happy home,” said Mary Severson, the center’s beam manager

Many of the Center’s technicians like Severson are staying on to help the decommissioning process. However in a few months everyone employed by the center will have to start looking for new jobs.

“Closure of the facility was a possibility but not a certain thing until this month,” said Ken Jacobs, the head of the accelerator development division and a 12-year veteran of the lab. He’s been looking around for somewhere in the Madison area to go next, but there’s a limited number of places where he can apply his expertise.

“It’s sort of a highly specialized field and there aren’t very many accelerators around,” Jacobs added.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
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