DOE announces new accelerator stewardship funding opportunities

The US Department of Energy (DOE) made available an estimated $4 million in grants on October 13 with a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for research opportunities associated with its Accelerator R&D Stewardship Program. Submitted proposals must either cover one of three topical areas identified by the Office of Science High Energy Physics (OHEP) or address long-term generic accelerator R&D.

According to the FOA, topical research areas include particle therapy beam delivery improvements, ultrafast laser technology and energy and environmental applications of accelerators. Generic topics include beam physics, advanced computational methods for accelerator design and analysis, beam diagnostics and feedback control, new superconducting materials, new materials and coatings for accelerator components, novel power sources for accelerators, new particle sources, novel magnet designs, novel lattice designs and novel technologies for secondary beam production.

Research funded under this FOA could lead to advances in high energy physics (HEP), but the grants are primarily directed toward industry partners interested in leveraging accelerator technology toward non-HEP applications. In fact, OHEP created the stewardship program in an effort to transfer technology it developed while pursuing basic energy sciences, high energy physics and nuclear physics into other industries. “So in a nutshell take unusual technologies with superconductors and compact accelerators and try to put them for use in medicine, security, defense, industrial, energy and environmental applications,” says Eric Colby, program manager for accelerator stewardship.

OHEP’s research parameters were drawn from responses it received to a Request for Information issued in April 2014 and subsequent workshops and open house meetings with industry. In June 2015, for example, the Office of Science held a workshop on energy and environmental applications of accelerators. “The participants at the workshop illustrated quite clearly that electron beam technologies at very high power, meaning megawatt class beam powers, really open the door to a number of environmental applications,” says Colby. Examples include sanitizing sewage so it can be used as fertilizer on farm fields, removing chemical toxins and pathogens from drinking water, cleaning up flue gas pollutants, remediating spilled oil products and sterilizing medical waste.

Some of the environmental applications Colby envisions will be for specialized cases. A portable beam system, for example, could potentially be used in emergencies similar to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in Charleston WV. Some 300,000 residents there went without access to potable water for five days after 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol spilled from an upriver Freedom Industries facility. “In specialized cases like that,” Colby says, “one can imagine having a portable electron beam system that you could use to irradiate the water, to destroy the toxins in a way that you can produce water locally that you can at least wash your hands and shower with, if not drink.”

The stewardship program began in 2014 and has an annual budget of $10 million. Of that, $5 million is designated for projects at the Brookhaven Accelerator Test Facility (ATF), while the other half covers competitive solicitation (FOAs) and special projects at the DOE’s national labs. Each segment of the stewardship operates under different parameters. The ATF, for example, is made available for free to users who agree to publish in public literature, according to Colby. Interested parties have to submit a proposal to a program advisory committee that then reviews it for strong scientific or technical merit.

In 2015, the stewardship program expanded to include the Accelerator Stewardship Test Facility Pilot Program, an effort to broaden outreach to industry by allowing access to additional national labs beyond Brookhaven. Eligible laboratories held open house events in the Spring and early Summer and submitted research proposals together with industry partners in June. “We had more than 450 people show up at the six labs that held their outreach events,” says Colby, “and out of those visitors more than 30 cooperative R&D activities were identified that were really unique to the accelerator test infrastructure at the labs, and met our criteria of being really high-value-added joint technology R&D where the outside entity would learn something significant or be able to use an unusual and unique facility at a lab and at the same time the lab would learn something from doing the work with the outside entity.”

OHEP chose seven of the proposals for the pilot program and in September awarded $1.3 million for the projects. Of that, over $250,000 went to Fermilab to fund research with Euclid Tech Labs and PAVAC Industries. Both of the projects involve improvements to superconducting cavities. Fermilab and Euclid researchers are developing a new low heat leak RF power coupler. If successful, the coupler will allow users to get radio frequency energy into a superconducting cavity with minimal heat leak. “It’s a very clever way to make the coupler, the RF power coupler, more reliable by getting rid of copper plating, lower the heat leak and make it simpler,” says Robert Kephart, director of Fermilab’s Illinois Accelerator Research Center. The team wants to build two of these couplers to demonstrate the technology and then move toward incorporating them into compact industrial SRF accelerators.

“There [are] about 30,000 accelerators out there,” says Kephart. “The sale of accelerators is more than $2 billion a year and they touch $500 billion in products. A lot of the technologies being developed for science machines can be applied to the next generation of industrial accelerators. And our goal is to be able to do that in a much more deliberate and conscious way than has been done in the past.”

Fermilab’s partnership with PAVAC aims to characterize high purity aluminum welded onto pure niobium sheet metal. The goal is to enable conduction cooling of superconducting radio frequency cavities and thereby reduce the complexity of cryomodules used for both scientific and industrial applications. Kephart believes that researchers are focusing too much on the inside of cavities to reduce the cost SRF accelerators, experimenting for example with layers of niobium of copper substrates. “There’s not much niobium in a cavity and its really not what drives the cost,” he says. “What drives the cost is the complexity of the refrigeration and the cryomodule and those are the two things we are trying to attack.”

Intellectual property generated by the stewardship program is covered by agreements between individual labs and industry partners. Under federal regulations, if the research is fully funded by taxpayers then the researchers must publicly publish all the findings. If a private company wishes to reserve its IP, however, it must pay the full cost of using the labs’ facilities and personnel.

The typical duration for an award issued under competitive solicitation (an FOA) is three years. OHEP’s desired end goal is that within two grant cycles an applicant will deliver a functioning prototype. Research in the pilot program, however, will be evaluated in the Spring and must thereafter be completed by August 31, 2016. “As a pilot program we really need the labs to tell us what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to be adjusted so that we can take that from the pilot program and figure out how to make an ongoing annual program successful,” says Colby. “The pilot is our chance to get our feet wet, understand what part of the mechanism works well and what we need to tune up and do better with for the follow on iteration. The expectation is that it will be an ongoing program.”