Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, August 20, 1999  |  Number 16
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

To Boldly Go Where No Accelerator Beam Has Gone Before

Last June, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert stood on the stage in Ramsey Auditorium, and by the miracle of modern electronics, activated the beam in the Main Injector, before a live audience. A few seconds after they pushed the buttons on a couple of laptop computers on stage, beam traces on huge TV screens mounted high above the capacity audience showed the result: the two rookie accelerator operators had brought the new accelerator beam to life. The crowd burst into applause, and the Main Injector was declared dedicated.

At that moment, Steve Holmes, the Main Injector project manager, also on stage, heaved a sigh of relief. He and a few others in the audience knew that the staged event was real, that the Main Injector was operating unpredictably that morning, and that there was no guarantee that this bit of complicated stagecraft would work. There were no plans to "fake” a beam if one didn’t actually materialize. What if the two honored guests had pushed the buttons and the beam plot, instead of rising obediently, had flatlined?

Plan B can now be told. Here is the scenario:

The Secretary and the Speaker push the buttons. Nothing happens. The beam trace doesn’t move. Suddenly on all four big screens in the auditorium appears the control room of the Starship Enterprise, with Captain Kirk in the foreground, furrowing his brow. He looks worried.

Cut to Scotty, seated at the starship controls. Scotty shouts.

"Captain! They've completely shut down the machines! They’re completely cold! It’ll take thirrrty minutes to regenerate them!”

Back to Kirk, who appears to be on the verge of tears.

"Thirty minutes! We don’t have thirty minutes.”

Scotty again.

"Captain, I can’t change the laws of physics!”


It was a scream. Some people wanted to use Plan B even if the Main Injector worked.

Then there was "the other back-up,” a second clip culled from the same Star Trek series. In this thigh-slapper, Scotty and crew are at work, frantically trying to fix something near an elevator door of the Enterprise. Mr. Spock walks in and takes a look at their efforts.

"You’d better hurry,” Spock says helpfully "By my calculations, we have eight minutes until impact.”

"Sorry,” Scotty tells him "we can’t fix it in under fourteen minutes. Not and maintain a safety factor.”

"You don’t have time for a safety factor,” says Spock, who turns on his heel and stalks out.

The dedication committee reluctantly voted that one down. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right for a Department of Energy national lab.

–Judy Jackson

A Little Help from a Prairie

You may think that Fermilab is preoccupied with the abstruse—those evanescent particles that disappear faster than you can blink.

And indeed Fermilab is. But out on the flat stretches of Midwest prairie that dot this 10-square-mile campus, other research is preoccupied with more immediate problems threatening us from just across the millennial hump: problems like global warming.

Researchers from several national laboratories have launched a study of "carbon sequestration”—how carbon gets imprisoned in vegetation, and in this case, in the grassland vegetation of a reconstructed prairie like Fermilab’s.

Rainforests tend to hog all the environmental respect, but grasslands have enormous ecological value because they are so highly productive, according to Rod Walton, Fermilab’s resident ecologist. Across the seasons, the grasses repeatedly grow and decompose, again and again. "Every carbon atom in a carbohydrate molecule in one of these plants is not a carbon atom in the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere,” Walton said.

The researchers are tackling several questions: Exactly how does carbon enter into the vegetation of a reconstructed prairie? How much of it is sequestered, and where (at the surface or farther down in the soil)? If a reconstructed prairie can shackle carbon, might it help rid the atmosphere of harmful levels of carbon dioxide? Should we start to think about new land management practices, like encouraging the growth of prairies on farmland that remains fallow?

Global warming has become a critical issue because, as Walton put it while inventing a new word, we’ve long been "de-sequestering” carbon by unearthing coal, peat, and other fuels. The carbon was safely stored away for years until human ingenuity released it into the atmosphere. Now our task is not so much to sequester, but to "re-sequester.”

On hearing news of the research project, Bob Betz, who has nursed Fermilab’s reconstructed prairie since its inception, grew anxious, as he does whenever someone mentions cutting down anything in his carefully tended grassland garden—even if it is for research. Just how much biomass would the researchers need?

No more than a few test tubes full, they assured him. At least for now.

But in these few test tubes, the U.S. Department of Energy, which is funding the research, has vested much hope.

Said DOE official Martha Krebs, "Breakthroughs … could lead to new, environmentally acceptable ways to help address global warming.”

–Sharon Butler

last modified 8/20/1999   email Fermilab