Since 1967, the Cyclotron Institute has served as the core of Texas A&M University’s nuclear science program and as a major technical and educational resource for the state, nation and world.
By Shana K. Hutchins, Texas A&M University College of Science
In 1964, Texas Governor John B. Connally personally visited the Texas A&M University campus to deliver the good news to then-Texas A&M President James Earl Rudder ’32 that a $6 million “atom smasher” would be built at Texas A&M, thanks to a unique public-private partnership involving the Atomic Energy Commission, the state of Texas and the Welch Foundation.
“This is one of the most significant announcements to be made this year and perhaps for some time,” Connally told “The Houston Post” at the time regarding the new cyclotron, the fourth to be located on a university campus and the largest in the South. “It is the biggest thing of its kind east of Berkeley, Calif.”
On December 4, 1967, Nobel Prize winners Glenn T. Seaborg and Willard F. Libby helped dedicate the Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute — three days after it had achieved its first external cyclotron-accelerated particle beam, thanks to a 400-ton, 2,000-kilowatt magnet whose power was equivalent to one-fifth of the output of the Texas A&M Power Plant. Twenty years later, that K150 cyclotron was joined by a K500, currently one of the world’s five largest superconducting cyclotrons.
In November, the Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute will revisit its rich legacy and commemorate 50 years of beam as part of a three-day symposium dedicated to Texas A&M’s past, present, and future of exploring the nuclear frontier.
Cyclotron Institute at 50: A Golden Anniversary
Exploring the Nuclear Frontier: 50 Years of Beam, set for November 15-17 on the Texas A&M campus, will showcase scientific presentations and poster sessions highlighting current research areas as well as historical talks presented by former Cyclotron Institute directors (including the most recent four, two of whom have been at Texas A&M as long as the institute has), facility tours and a Thursday evening (Nov. 16) banquet at the Hildebrand Equine Center Complex.
The symposium’s final day (Friday, Nov. 17) will feature a special recognition event, set for 11:30 a.m. in the Steven W. Hawking Auditorium and followed by a barbecue lunch on the second-floor patio of the John R. Blocker Building.
“On December 1, 1967, at 12:42 a.m., the newly built Texas A&M variable energy cyclotron achieved its first external beam, and we have been exploring the nuclear frontier ever since,” said Dr. Sherry J. Yennello, Regents Professor of Chemistry and Cyclotron Institute director since 2014. “We have a lot to celebrate, from research milestones and products made possible through our radiation-effects testing, to students we’ve trained and sent out into the global workforce.”
As a U.S. Department of Energy University Facility, the Cyclotron Institute is jointly supported by the DOE and the state of Texas as a major technical and educational resource for the state, nation and world. Internationally recognized for its research, the institute provides the primary infrastructure support for Texas A&M’s graduate programs in nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics. In addition to conducting basic research and educating students in accelerator-based science and technology, the institute provides technical capabilities for a wide variety of applications in space science, materials science, analytical procedures and nuclear medicine.
At the time of its founding, the variable energy cyclotron was expected to deliver the kind of basic research that Connally had noted was in short supply and was lauded by Rudder as “a real breakthrough into excellence.”
“Texas A&M has accepted Governor Connally’s challenge to keep the state’s brainpower at home,” Rudder said. “A&M’s Cyclotron Institute will attract top scientists and should double our doctoral studies in physics and chemistry.”
Financing for the fledgling Cyclotron Institute came from private, state and federal sources, a tradition that continues to this day. Initial building costs and associated equipment requirements were covered by the Houston-based Welch Foundation and Texas A&M’s state legislature-appropriated funds. The Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the DOE, provided $3.25 million for the construction of the cyclotron itself, which was patterned after the 88-inch instrument and facility previously constructed at Berkeley.
Then and Now
What began 50 years ago in Aggieland with a staff of 14 teachers plus graduate assistants and an annual operating budget of approximately $1 million now accounts for world-renowned programs in nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics involving more than 100 affiliated members — scientists, engineers, technicians, support staff, and graduate and undergraduate students. Institute scientists publish more than 100 papers per year in leading scientific journals, and the institute serves as a technical support base for collaborative research programs at other major national and international accelerator facilities.
Beyond primary funding from the DOE, the National Science Foundation, state of Texas and the Welch Foundation, the Cyclotron Institute brings in more than $4.5 million annually in external research grants. Testing by companies and agencies (including Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the U.S. Navy Laboratories) that rent time on the cyclotron for their own research projects nets an additional $3 million annually, generating a total exceeding $7.5 million in overall external funding each year.
Through the years, institute facilities have been used for cancer therapy, radiation dosimetry, studies of plant physiology, precise analytical determinations, development of mass-spectrometric techniques, studies of “high T” superconductors, evaluation of nuclear waste transmutation techniques and simulation of cosmic-radiation-induced effects on microelectronic circuits. The resulting breakthroughs have been myriad, including many products such as OnStar, for which the Cyclotron Institute did all the testing back in the 1990s, that now are household names.
“The Cyclotron Institute represents the best of government, academia, industry and philanthropy at work for the greater good,” Yennello said. “We hope as many people will join us as possible in celebrating what we see as a collective success for our state, nation and world that we’re fortunate to have right here in our backyard.”
Visit the Cyclotron Institute website for a complete schedule of events or to RSVP for either the symposium or specific events.
This story by Shana K. Hutchins originally appeared on the College of Science website.