Launching Crocker Nuclear Laboratory Into The Future

Students at Crocker Lab

Stepping inside the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory control room can spark nostalgia for space-age design. Bakelite knobs and flashing analog switches parade across sofa-sized control banks that look like they belong on the set of a 1960s sci-fi flick. But the Crocker is far from antiquated.

Even though little has changed since the Crocker opened in 1966, the lab has a bright future. This fall, the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences will begin managing the cyclotron and its machine shop, the first step in re-energizing research and teaching at the Crocker.

“The Crocker Lab represents a significant resource for the division,” said Robert Svoboda, professor and chair of physics. Tucked inside a modest building in the heart of campus, the Crocker cyclotron is one of the few particle accelerators of its kind still working in the United States. Particle accelerators like the Crocker cyclotron use powerful magnets to propel electrically charged particles such as protons to nearly the speed of light.

The cyclotron’s unique capabilities are ideally suited for contributing basic science for nuclear weapon detection and monitoring, Svoboda said. The facilities will also complement faculty expertise in nuclear science, such as exploring fundamental properties of matter and designing new and improved materials, including high-temperature superconductors.

A Research Setting for Students

The division will also expand hands-on training opportunities for students. “Being able to learn techniques in an actual research setting is really valuable,” said Kyle Bilton, a graduate student in nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley. “We’re picking up skills you can’t get anywhere else.” Bilton was one of 15 undergraduate and graduate students from the U.S. and China who participated in the 2016 Nuclear Analytical Techniques summer school. Held at UC Davis and funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the summer school offers broad training in nuclear techniques.

Fast Facts

  • Crocker Lab’s particle beam can be tuned to produce radiation similar in type and energy to that seen in space. Government and industry customers test electronics at Crocker to see how components will withstand solar radiation.

  • Crocker Lab’s cyclotron has helped treat more than 1,500 people for eye cancer with proton beam therapy. The beam penetrates the eye and then stops, targeting its cancer-killing energy on the tumor itself. With a cure rate of 97 percent, the patient care is a highlight for the staff.

  • In the 1980s, historians used the cyclotron to analyze ink and paper without damaging priceless historical documents, including a Gutenberg Bible and parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Crocker will continue to work with faculty from other divisions, as well as welcome industry and government customers. The diversity of research at the Crocker includes air quality, medical treatments and spacecraft radiation testing. “A facility like this could have never survived with a single story,” said retired research chemist Manuel Lagunas-Solar, who worked at the Crocker for more than 40 years. “The key to success was flexibility and versatility.”

Read more about the Crocker’s 50-year anniversary.


—Becky Oskin, content strategist, Mathematical and Physical Sciences