Military Surplus Repurposed for High Energy Physics

Performing high-energy physics experiments can get very expensive, a fact that attracts debate on public funding for scientific research. But the reality is that scientists often work very hard to stretch their funding as far as they can. This is why we need informative and entertaining stories like Gizmodo’s How Physicists Recycled WWII Ships and Artillery to Unlock the Mysteries of the Universe.

The military have specific demands on components for their equipment. Hackers are well aware MIL-SPEC parts typically command higher prices. That quality is useful beyond their military service, which lead to how CERN obtained large quantities of a specific type of brass from obsolete Russian naval ordnance.

The remainder of the article shared many anecdotes around Fermilab’s use of armor plate from decommissioned US Navy warships. They obtained a mind-boggling amount – thousands of tons – just for the cost of transport. Dropping the cost of high quality steel to “only” $53 per ton (1975 dollars, ~$250 today) and far more economical than buying new. Not all of the steel acquired by Fermilab went to science experiments, though. They also put a little bit towards sculptures on the Fermilab campus. (One of the few contexts where 21 tons of steel can be considered “a little bit”.)

For other reasons why scientists might desire steel from old ships instead of buying new, see our story on low-background steel. If you want to know how some researchers are working to perform experiments on more modest scale of equipment, you might enjoy this story of a “tabletop” accelerator with plasma mirrors made from VHS tape.

8 thoughts on “Military Surplus Repurposed for High Energy Physics

      1. I remember a 1990s experiment proposal (looking for axions at Stanford?) that proposed using lead from Spanish galleons sunken by Sir Frances Drake, who operated with letters of marque from Queen Elizabeth I. The paper had a citation on sourcing the low-background material: “F. Drake, ER1 collaboration”.

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