For the first time Friday, scientists fired up a $1.4 billion research instrument that uses a stream of subatomic particles to analyze metals and other industrial materials.
The Spallation Neutron Source facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory took seven years to build. It produced a millisecond pulse of neutrons on Friday afternoon.
When fully operational, the Energy Department installation will produce a pulsing neutron stream 10 times more intense than that of any other research facility in the world.
That stream will let scientists look deeper into the structure and dynamics of different materials.
"The type of science that SNS is aimed at, although it is fundamental research, it is not too far away from real products and real technologies," project director Thom Mason said.
Jet planes, credit cards, drugs, compact discs, shatterproof windshields, mapping of oil deposits, environmentally friendly dry-cleaning, batteries and fuel cells all have been created or improved through neutron-scattering examinations pioneered by Nobel Laureate Clifford Shull at Oak Ridge in the 1940s and '50s.
Oak Ridge Director Jeff Wadsworth said he is confident major discoveries will come from the laboratory, but it will take years.
Possible areas of research for the facility include lighter alloys and stronger welds for aircraft and space probes, high-temperature composites and plastics for automobiles, and magnetic materials to increase computer storage capacity.
The machine is so powerful that in one year it will use about the same amount of electricity as a town of 30,000.
It is the first neutron source built in the United States in more than 30 years, and is expected to be used by as many as 2,000 scientists from around the globe annually.