By Michael Schwartz
If not for an abandoned experiment at Stanford University in the 1960s, Jefferson Lab as we know it today might have never materialized.
The experiment was attempting to build a machine that utilized superconducting radio frequencies, the science that would eventually put the Newport News nuclear physics lab on the map.
Fast-forward 20 years. The foundation for what would first be known as the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility and later the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility was laid in 1984 when the Southeastern Universities Research Association received funding to build an accelerator to peer into the make-up of subatomic particles like gluons and quarks.
The group included several Virginia schools, ultimately helping land the lab in Hampton Roads.
However, at that point, SRF technology had still not been mastered.
"The approval was for what was a very vanilla way to build an accelerator," said Steve Corneliussen, who worked as a science writer at the lab since its early days.
Luckily, the lab's original director, Hermann Grunder, believed the lab should take a leap and build an accelerator that would use SRF technology.
"A lot of people thought he was crazy," Corneliussen said.
But they went for it and off went a crew on a nearly decade-long project to build the accelerator on land owned by NASA just off Jefferson Avenue. The city bought the land from NASA and then gave it to the U.S. Department of Energy for whom SURA would manage the lab's operations.
"We knew exciting things would happen when we started," said Roy Whitney, the lab's current chief information and technology officer and one of only two original employees still at the lab.
The first real science came out of the lab around 1994 and proved the SRF risk paid off. Jefferson Lab today is well-known in the physics world and helped produce spinoff technologies including the Free-Electron Laser.
At 25, the lab is still considered state-of-the-art, Corneliussen said.
And the federal government agrees. The lab is in the midst of massive and expensive upgrades that will double the power of the accelerator. And 25 years later for Whitney, "It's a new place all the time. Maybe we'll discover things we haven't even thought about."