At Jefferson Lab, researchers have fabricated a niobium cavity for particle accelerators that has set a world record for energy efficiency. Gianluigi "Gigi" Ciovati, a superconducting radiofrequency scientist, discusses how he and colleagues Pashupati Dhakal and Ganapati Myneni developed the technology, and how it will be used to impact the energy industry.
This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations developed by the National Labs.
Question: First off, for my mom in Ohio -- what makes the breakthrough so exciting for her?
Gianluigi "Gigi" Ciovati: The breakthrough could make building and operating superconducting accelerators more affordable and available for wider use in universities or industry for applications that include producing medical isotopes and particle beams for diagnosing and treating disease. And they offer the potential to power future nuclear power plants that produce little or no radioactive waste.
Q: What about your facility made it the right place for this discovery -- whether colleagues, equipment or interdisciplinary collaboration?
GC: All three of the components you mention -- colleagues, equipment and interdisciplinary collaboration -- were equally important in achieving the significant results we've obtained so far. The national labs bring together some of the brightest people in the world and provide them with facilities that are unmatched, and this helps pave the way to unique research and discoveries.
Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?
GC: Actually, the material and process we are developing originate from early practices in this field. Advances in the technology over the past 40 years led us to combine the material, ingot niobium, and the process, high-temperature heat treatment, in unique ways and to explore the full potential of both. Jefferson Lab also was the first lab in the world to install and operate a large-scale accelerator using superconducting radiofrequency technology, and we have learned a lot from operating the lab over the past two decades.
Q: What future needs will be met by more powerful accelerators?
GC: Several applications can benefit from high-power continuous wave SRF accelerators, such as drivers for subcritical nuclear reactors for energy production and transmutation of nuclear waste, neutron sources for the development of new materials, free-electron lasers for material studies and defense applications and, of course, fundamental research in nuclear/particle physics.
Q: What other technologies are affected by the pursuit for a better (or more specialized) accelerator?
GC: The technology that might have the greatest impact on society from affordable, reliable, high-power continuous wave SRF accelerators is the nuclear power industry, which could someday build new power plants that don't produce any nuclear waste.