New TUNL Director Art Champagne Looks to the Future

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL) has a new director. On July 1, Duke professor Calvin Howell passed the baton to UNC professor Art Champagne, who is the William C. Friday Professor of Physics at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Howell says Champagne has all the characteristics of a successful TUNL director: “He’s a leading scientist, an active researcher, and a great steward and investor in the research infrastructure of TUNL.”

Champagne is the first non-Duke professor to lead TUNL, located on Duke’s campus. But in a lab whose very existence is predicated on pooling people and resources from Duke, UNC, and N.C. State that’s not an issue. “Coming from UNC is immaterial because I’m part of the lab,” Champagne says. “Within the lab there are no distinctions and it’s always been that way.”

This collaborative culture is one of TUNL’s strengths, says Champagne, noting that in addition to the original three consortium members, researchers from N.C. Central University are now also participating in TUNL. “You have people from four universities with a wide range of skills and interests so there’s a level of activity that’s stimulating,” he says. “You can put a critical mass of people on a project and really make a significant contribution. [You have] the ability to tap into the resources of four first-rate campuses, to go beyond the nuclear physics group in each university.”

Champagne came to TUNL from Princeton in 1990, when TUNL was essentially a single building housing the tandem Van de Graaff accelerator. Beginning in 1996, he added to TUNL’s facilities by installing and commissioning the Laboratory for Experimental Nuclear Astrophysics (LENA), which he and his colleagues use to measure the rates of nuclear reactions that take place in stars. Today, TUNL also includes the High Intensity Gamma-Ray Source (HIGS) in a separate 52,000-square-foot building.

These facilities are another of TUNL’s strengths. “With HIGS you have most intense tunable gamma-ray source in the world,” Champagne says. “No one else has that. LENA is the most powerful facility of its sort in the world. No one else has that. And the tandem is still a relevant instrument that can do things no one else can do.”

In the coming years, Champagne says TUNL will seek to upgrade the HIGS facility to keep it on the forefront in nuclear physics. In particular, it could make gamma rays with higher energies and intensities in order to make detailed measurements of the properties of quarks and other particles that make up protons and neutrons. “That gets us into new science,” he says. “I see this as an exciting growth area for the lab.”

Other growth areas include two off-site research projects: the Majorana Demonstrator experiment, which is searching for neutrino-less double beta-decay at the Homestake Mine in South Dakota, and the Neutron EDM experiment at Oak Ridge, which is seeking data to inform certain theories as to why the Big Bang created more matter than anti-matter. Groups from TUNL are playing leading roles in both of these multi-institution experiments.

While supporting these research efforts, Champagne will also focus on nurturing the culture that’s kept TUNL successful for 50 years. “One of the problems with having the research become more diverse is that it’s easier to go off and not talk to the rest of the lab and I think that works against what’s gotten us to this point,” he says. “We need to keep that culture alive because that’s what going to allow us to compete for the next big project. Our biggest advantage is our people—not as individuals but as a group.”

Champagne also sees opportunities for TUNL to reach out. He’d like TUNL to do more to offer technical resources and know-how to each university’s physics department, exchanging ideas that might spark new collaborations. He also believes TUNL has an opportunity to communicate more with the public about its research, which is supported by taxpayer dollars, mainly through the Department of Energy. “Every time I talk to someone about what I do and the fact that they support it, they are instantly fascinated,” he says.

Perhaps that fascination comes from the fact that Champagne studies stars—familiar yet awe-inspiring. Specifically, he studies the rates of energy generation in stars in order to learn more about how stars evolve and how the galaxy as a whole is evolving.

In his quest, he and his colleagues have assembled a library of about 60,000 stellar nuclear reactions, including rates as a function of temperature. Some of the reaction rates are based on calculations while others have been measured using experiments with LENA. The library of reaction rates is constantly being updated and is available for use by astronomers who model stellar processes.

One of the beauties of the collection is that every reaction has a degree of uncertainty associated with it. “The one thing we can do that no one else can do right now is we understand the limits of accuracy for each reaction,” Champagne says. “That’s been a huge task and we’ve been working on it for the better part of a decade.”

When he’s not thinking about stars or the future of TUNL, Champagne relaxes by making music. “Playing the guitar is my second career,” he says.

Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.