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From art history and archaeology to agronomy and geology, a research reactor serves the whole campus

The Ward Laboratory at Cornell University, which houses a small-scale nuclear reactor for research and teaching, is now the Ward Center for Nuclear Sciences, a campuswide center to serve researchers and students throughout the university as well as industry.

With the Cornell Board of Trustees approving the change in January, the Ward Center becomes a unit under the vice president for research and advanced studies rather than in the College of Engineering, making it a true universitywide research and teaching facility.

"This positions the facility to be of service to faculty, students and the public," said Howard C. Aderhold, the reactor supervisor and director of the center. "The most important element of our mission is to provide facilities for Cornell research groups and a laboratory for teaching."

Norman R. Scott, Cornell's vice president for research and advanced studies, said: "This new center is truly interdisciplinary, a resource that brings together researchers in human ecology, agriculture, engineering, veterinary medicine and arts and sciences. It is one of the best examples of the merging of interdisciplinary teaching and research and is a great asset to students and faculty across the campus."

Ward Laboratory was built in the 1960s for instruction and research in the then-burgeoning field of nuclear engineering, first in Cornell's School of Applied and Engineering Physics and then as the Nuclear Science and Engineering Program.

But when the College of Engineering disbanded the program in July 1995 due to the diminishing interest in nuclear power, Ward Lab's facilities, useful in teaching and research in a broad range of fields, were without an administrative home. A faculty study committee proposed, and the Faculty Senate approved last December, a plan to reorganize the facilities as a university center to continue its interdisciplinary uses.

The laboratory now operates under an 11-member advisory board comprised of faculty members, with three members comprising an executive committee. The executive committee chairman is Robert Kay, professor of geological sciences, and the other members are James Burlitch, professor of chemistry, and Donald Holcomb, professor of physics. The advisory board members are: David D. Clark, professor of applied and engineering physics and former director of the nuclear science and engineering program; John E. Coleman, professor of classics; Edward J. Dubovi, associate director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory; Stephen C. McGuire, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering; S. Kay Obendorf, professor of textiles and apparel; Jean-Yves Parlange, professor of agricultural and biological engineering; Ferdinand Rodriguez, professor of chemical engineering; and Richard W. Zobel, associate professor of plant breeding and soil, crop and atmospheric sciences.

The centerpiece of the Ward Center is the 500-kilowatt TRIGA nuclear reactor, the largest, most versatile and most widely used tool in the laboratory. (For comparison, a commercial reactor typically used to generate electricity operates at powers up to 3.8 million kilowatts.) It is used for a broad range of research and teaching, and to serve industry.

"The facilities allow for analytical measurements in calibration and test services that cannot be found anywhere else at Cornell or in the state," Aderhold said. "The reactor provides an intense source of thermal neutrons. Only a handful of universities have this capability."

Among the techniques offered is neutron activation analysis, where small samples are irradiated and analyzed for trace elements in a non-destructive manner. Such uses would include archaeology and anthropology, where pottery shards can be analyzed to determine their origins. In geological sciences, the technique has been used for the last 15 years to analyze several thousand volcanic rocks, in an effort to understand the origins of magma that characterize the Aleutian, Andean and Kamchatkan portions of the so-called "ring of fire."

Neutron radiography, using neutrons instead of X-rays, produces images that help civil engineers find micro cracks in concrete, entomologists find corn rootworms, and agronomists track water movement in soil. Neutron induced autoradiography, another technique, is helping art historians find hidden paintings on canvases. A video camera is available as well, so that researchers can see in real time what is happening inside their samples. These capabilities all are the result of Aderhold's leadership.

"In all of these," Aderhold said, "graduate students are directly involved, learning new techniques and tools for their studies."

Within a year, computerized tomography will be available using the reactor. Like CAT or MRI, this will allow reconstruction of images using thermal neutrons to determine the location and size of internal components of art and archaeological objects, the flow patterns of water and hydrocarbons in soil and the location of flaws in industrial objects, such as aircraft engine turbine blades. No place else is using tomography in this way, Aderhold said.

Also within a year, a cold neutron source and guide system, or cold neutron beam, will be available. This is a beam of slow neutrons free of fast neutrons and gamma rays, so that research in physics, for example, that depends on the unique properties of neutrons are free from background noise. Developed by David D. Clark, former lab director, and his students, the system will be useful to university researchers and to industrial users for analysis of many elements in greater depth than was previously possible. It also could be used for basic studies of nuclear energy levels and neutron optics. The neutron beam will be the first such facility in a university reactor, providing a low background, highly pure beam of cold neutrons.

Ward Center facilities also provide a first-rate teaching environment. For example, students in Engineering 121, a freshman laboratory course, learn neutron activation analysis, gamma ray spectroscopy and the use of nuclear scientific instruments. More than 200 students in Physics 208 do one lab on activation analysis each year. Graduate courses in nuclear science and engineering use the facility, as do students in "Art, Archaeology and Analysis," taught by a group of faculty members from across the university.

The laboratory also provides high-quality service to industry, including reactor test and calibration and gamma radiation services for many firms. Among the industrial users are Eastman Kodak Co.; Texas Instruments; Corning Inc.; IBM; Image and Sensing Technology Corp.; DuPont; Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories; and General Electric/Reuter Stokes Inc.

Aderhold, center director, has been at Cornell since 1962. He has been responsible for procuring up-to-date instrumentation in radiation detection and neutron activation analysis, and planned the design and construction for Cornell's facilities in neutron radiography and neutron-induced autoradiography.

Prior to coming to Cornell, Aderhold worked in reactor design and operation at Curtiss-Wright Corp. and oversaw startup of several reactors around the world. He also oversaw the startup of the Zero Power Reactor at Cornell. He trained at Williamsport Technical Institute in Pennsylvania. Author of several scientific papers, Aderhold holds senior reactor operator licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and recently participated in the Fifth World Conference on Neutron Radiography in Berlin.

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