Launching Crocker Nuclear Laboratory Into The Future

Students in the Nuclear Analytical Techniques Summer School use the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory.
Students in the Nuclear Analytical Techniques Summer School use the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory.

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.

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.

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.”

Becky Oskin, content strategist for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science