Q&A with Rob Saethre

Q&A: ORNL’s Rob Saethre shares why particle accelerator conference matters

When the International Particle Accelerator Conference, or IPAC, launched 13 years ago in Kyoto, Japan, it signaled a tremendous period of advancement for particle accelerators throughout the world. It also marked a greater exchange of ideas among the community, which includes industry representatives, institutional researchers and academic partners, including students and interns. The exchange of ideas that happens at IPAC helps fuel innovation for discovery science, medicine, industry and security.

The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory will host IPAC, the world’s largest particle accelerator conference, May 19-24, 2024, at Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee. To prepare for hosting the conference, several members of the local organizing committee, including ORNL senior engineering manager Rob Saethre, attended IPAC23 in Venice, Italy, in May to observe the layout, collect lessons learned and promote the Nashville event. Breaking records, IPAC23 featured more than 1,600 attendees and over 100 exhibitors from industry, government and academia.

Saethre, an asset management and engineering program manager for ORNL’s Neutron Sciences Directorate, chairs the local organizing committee for IPAC24. Saethre oversees engineering-related activities, serves as the highest level of design authority and defines the protocols and standards governing all aspects of engineering for Neutron Sciences at ORNL. In this discussion, he describes the conference’s importance and planning.

Why is IPAC important?

Most of the 30,000 accelerators in operation today support commercial uses, like accelerators the size of X-ray machines used for radiation treatment at hospitals. Then there are a number of accelerators at facilities dedicated to basic science research. Typically, these institutions are nationally funded and draw scientists from all over the world who work together to lay groundwork for new materials and technologies. The Spallation Neutron Source — about the size of three football fields and the world’s brightest and most powerful neutron source — falls into this category.

Particle accelerators at research institutions give us a way to understand the behavior of different materials at the atomic level so that industry can develop them into usable technology. The knowledge we gain helps create better materials for things like fuel cells and batteries, industrial alloys or even medicines.

However, neutron science, for example, looks decades into the future. A scientist working on understanding a new material might not see it come to fruition until late in their career. Take smart phones. The basic science that led to the development of the touchscreen and memory happened through particle acceleration and other research activities years before the mainstream ever thought about the possibility of such devices.

IPAC is the most important conference for researchers using particle accelerators. It provides ideal environments for attendees to generate ideas that will help solve challenges in science and engineering. It is also a place build major partnerships with other facilities and industry.

Who participates in conference activities?

Industry typically attends IPAC in high numbers. This is great because people from operating facilities like ours can see what new products the vendors have available, and the vendors can get ideas from these facilities about the types of products that should be developed. This level of networking is key to industry and research facilities like ours.

Leading scientists from all over the world present their work at IPAC and engage with industry representatives. Students also present their work and have a chance to build their networks and hunt for jobs.

IPAC also hosts 30 to 40 invited talks given by leaders in the community. Our Research Accelerator Division Director and conference chair, Fulvia Pilat, was an invited speaker this year. Her talk covered the role industry partners play in advancing basic science research.

What kinds of exhibitors have booths at these conferences?

Just over 100 exhibitors attended IPAC 23; 90 of them have expressed their interest in coming to IPAC24. Typical vendors are direct suppliers to SNS, providing things like radiofrequency equipment, power supplies, magnets, control systems and test equipment. Other exhibitors include governments, medical isotope producers, all the US national labs with accelerators, other accelerator institutions and research institutions from all over. IPAC is also an excellent recruiting opportunity for up-and-coming accelerator engineers and scientists.

What is ORNL’s role in IPAC?

Each year, IPAC is held in one of the three regions: Asia, Europe and North America. This year marks the United States’ turn, and ORNL was chosen as the host based on its history of particle acceleration at the High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Spallation Neutron Source, home of the world’s most intense pulsed neutron beams for scientific research and industrial development. We chose Nashville because the city has created a wonderful venue right in the heart of downtown with plenty of space for a conference of this scale — not to mention the draw of Nashville’s music and cultural history. Nashville is becoming known as a convention city on par with New York, Las Vegas or Chicago for these reasons.

What is next after IPAC24?

IPAC24 will promote ORNL as a leader in accelerator science and a source of research and development for innovative technologies. ORNL researchers will benefit from networking with experts in the field and will gain the opportunity to create new collaborations. The conference is also a great forum for vetting ideas for additional uses of SNS and other facilities.

SNS is a DOE Office of Science user facility. UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the U.S. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.

This fall, look for more insights about IPAC in a Q&A with Neutron Sciences Division Director Fulvia Pilat.

— by Sumner Brown Gibbs

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