In 1928, physics professor Ernest O. Lawrence left his faculty position at Yale University for a job at the University of California's Berkeley campus. While at Berkeley, Lawrence invented a unique particle accelerator called a cyclotron that would prove his hypothesis: whirling charged particles around to boost their energies then casting them toward a target is an effective way to smash open atomic nuclei. Lawrence won the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for the cyclotron, and ushered in a new era in the study of subatomic particles.

Beamline 10.0.1, one of 40 beamlines directed to numerous experimental end-stations at the Advanced Light Source (ALS). (Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Through his work, Lawrence launched the modern era of multidisciplinary team science. In 1931, when he created the Radiation Laboratory on the Berkeley campus, Lawrence began recruiting a circle of colleagues from physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine whose groundbreaking teamwork would be critical to the laboratory's success. When his plans for larger cyclotrons required more room, he moved the laboratory to the Berkeley hills; the lab was named for him after his death in 1959.

Today, Berkeley Lab is a member of the national laboratory system supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through its Office of Science, and is managed by the University of California (UC). The Lab's current Director is Michael Witherell, Ph.D., a leading physicist who is the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab).

User Facilities: Engines of Discovery

The NERSC Cray Cori supercomputer. (Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Berkeley Lab fosters groundbreaking fundamental science that enables transformational solutions for energy and environment challenges, using interdisciplinary teams and creating advanced tools for scientific discovery. The following Berkeley Lab user facilities provide state-of-the-art resources for scientists across the nation and around the world.

Advanced Light Source (ALS)

The Advanced Light Source is an electron accelerator/storage ring that serves as one of the world's premier sources of X-ray and ultraviolet light for scientific research ranging from advanced materials to protein crystallography and 3D biological imaging. The ALS is a specialized particle accelerator that generates bright beams of X-ray light for scientific research. Electron bunches travel at nearly the speed of light in a circular path, emitting ultraviolet and X-ray light in the process. The light is directed through about 40 beamlines to numerous experimental end-stations, where scientists can conduct research in a wide variety of fields, including materials science, biology, chemistry, physics, and the environmental sciences.

The wavelengths of the synchrotron light span the electromagnetic spectrum, and have just the right size and energy range for examining the atomic and electronic structure of matter. These two kinds of structure determine nearly all the commonly observed properties of matter, such as strength, chemical reactivity, thermal and electrical conductivity, and magnetism.

The most common research areas covered by ALS beamlines are applied sciences such as optics, extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, metrology, instrumentation, detectors, and new synchrotron techniques; general and structural biology; chemical sciences such as surfaces/interfaces, catalysts, chemical dynamics (gas-phase chemistry), crystallography, and physical chemistry; Earth and planetary science, bioremediation, climate change, and water chemistry; energy sciences such as photovoltaics, photosynthesis, biofuels, energy storage, combustion, catalysis, and carbon capture/sequestration; materials sciences such as correlated materials, nanomaterials, magnetism, polymers, semiconductors, water, and advanced materials; and atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physics.

Molecular Foundry

The Molecular Foundry provides support to researchers whose work can benefit from or contribute to nanoscience. Through access to state-of-the-art instruments, materials, technical expertise, and training, the Foundry provides researchers with the tools to enhance the development and understanding of the synthesis, characterization, and theory of nanoscale materials. Users come to the Foundry to perform multidisciplinary research beyond the scope of an individual's own laboratory.

The Foundry utilizes seven research facilities focused on imaging and manipulation of nanostructures, nanofabrication, theory of nanostructured materials, inorganic nanostructures, biological nanostructures, organic and macromolecular synthesis, and electron microscopy.

Energy Sciences Network (ESnet)

(L to R) Physicist Junquiao Wu, researcher Changhyun Ko, and Researcher Fan Yang at the nano-Auger electron spectroscopy instrument in the Molecular Foundry. (Marilyn Chung)

ESnet provides the high-bandwidth, reliable connections linking scientists at national laboratories, universities, and other research institutions, enabling them to collaborate on some of the world's most important scientific challenges including energy, climate science, and the origins of the universe. ESnet provides services to more than 40 DOE research sites, including the entire national laboratory system, its supercomputing facilities, and its major scientific instruments. ESnet also connects to 140 research and commercial networks, permitting DOE-funded scientists to collaborate with partners around the world.

National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC)

NERSC is the primary scientific computing facility for DOE's Office of Science, and a world leader in accelerating scientific discovery through computation and data analysis. More than 5,000 scientists use NERSC to perform basic research across a wide range of disciplines, including climate modeling, high-energy physics, new materials, simulations of the early universe, and a host of other scientific endeavors.

NERSC is one of the largest facilities in the world devoted to providing computational resources and expertise for basic scientific research. All research projects funded by the DOE Office of Science that require high-performance computing support are eligible to apply to use NERSC resources. Projects that are not funded by the DOE Office of Science, but that conduct research that supports the Office of Science mission may also apply.

Joint Genome Institute (JGI)

Brachypodium distachyon is a small, rapidly growing grass that serves as a model for candidate bioenergy grasses such as Miscanthus and switchgrass. For this reason, B. distachyon genome was sequenced and annotated at the Joint Genome Institute (JGI). Seen here is John Vogel with Brachypodium plants at the JGI. (Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

The JGI is the only federally funded, high-throughput genome sequencing and analysis facility dedicated to genomes of non-medical microbes, microbial communities, plants, fungi, and other targets relevant to DOE missions in energy, climate, and environment. The facility provides collaborators around the world with access to massive-scale DNA sequencing to underpin modern systems biology research and provide fundamental data on key genes that may link to biological functions, including microbial metabolic pathways and enzymes used to generate fuel molecules, affect plant biomass formation, degrade contaminants, or capture CO2. The information can then be used to optimize organisms for biofuels production and other DOE missions.

Among the JGI's largest customers are the DOE Bioenergy Research Centers, which were established to accelerate basic research in the development of next-generation cellulosic and other biofuels through focused efforts on biomass improvement, biomass degradation, and strategies for fuels production.

Projects focus on developing plants that can be used as feedstocks for biofuel production, and characterizing enzymes and pathways that can ferment sugars into biofuels. As microbes make up the largest component of the Earth's biodiversity, understanding how they metabolize carbon, and how environmental changes affect these processes, is crucial for the development of better predictive models for reducing the effects of increasing carbon dioxide emissions on the global climate.

The field of biogeochemistry explores the full spectrum of biological, physical, geological, and chemical processes and reactions involved in sustaining life on Earth. One area of emphasis targets microbes and microbial communities (or metagenomes) that can degrade or otherwise transform environmental contaminants such as toxic chemicals or heavy metals.

Bringing Science Solutions to the World

Berkeley Lab fosters groundbreaking fundamental research that enables transformational solutions for energy and environment challenges. Here are six lab-wide strategic initiatives under development.

  • The Biosciences area forges multidisciplinary teams to solve national challenges in energy, environment, and health issues, and to advance the engineering of biological systems for sustainable manufacturing.
  • Computing Sciences focuses on high-performance computing and networking through research in mathematical modeling, data analysis, and computer system architecture and software. This area oversees ESnet, NERSC, and the Computational Research Division.
  • Earth and Environmental Sciences tackles some of the most pressing environmental and energy challenges of the 21st century in order to enable sustainable stewardship and judicious use of the Earth's subsurface energy resources. The vision is to lead the nation in solving complex environment and energy challenges.
  • The Energy Sciences Area seeks solutions to the global energy-related challenges that impact our planet through a deeper understanding of the interactions between energy and matter. There are four divisions in this area: the ALS, Chemical Sciences, Earth Sciences, and Materials Sciences.
  • Energy Technologies develops science and policy solutions to address the world's most critical challenges. This area features research of the Building Technology and Urban Systems, Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts, and Energy Storage and Distributed Resources divisions.
  • The Physical Sciences Area embodies the lab's historic role in exploring the fundamental forces and particles of matter from deep within the hearts of atoms, to the farthest edges of the universe. This area encompasses the Accelerator Technology and Applied Physics Division, the Engineering Division, the Nuclear Science Division, and Physics Division.

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This article first appeared in the June, 2017 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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