ITHACA, N.Y. – The Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source is “one of the brightest x-ray sources – essentially an x-ray lightbulb – in the world,” according to Dr. Joel Brock, director of CHESS. The university’s particle accelerator emits powerful x-ray beams that illuminate materials at the molecular level, allowing researchers to “see what’s inside almost anything,” Brock said. After a  six month, $15 million upgrade dubbed CHESS-U, the facility is bringing a glow to the whole Southern Tier.

“It’s a beacon of hope for companies,” said New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who was on Cornell’s campus Thursday to celebrate the synchrotron’s reopening.

Lt. Gov. Hochul celebrates the completion of CHESS-U. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

The upgrades, she said, will help retain talent and attract new companies to the Southern Tier by providing state of the art facilities and scientists trained to use them. Graduates, she said, “are not leaving anymore. They’re staying. And the difference is we now have jobs to offer them.”

CHESS got its start in 1978, and for decades it has maintained its membership in a small club of laboratories worldwide capable of producing x-ray beams powerful enough to glimpse the atomic structure of materials. Joel Malina, Cornell’s vice president for university relations, said it has long been “a leading synchrotron source in the U.S.”

To maintain its edge as particle accelerators around the world become more sophisticated, however, the lab needed to increase the precision of its x-rays.

New York State invested $15 million as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative to upgrade the facility and keep it competitive.

CHESS associate director Ernie Fontes explained scientists have moved from imaging objects to imaging processes. With enhancements to CHESS, he said, “We can see what a molecule or atom is doing.” Scientists can see materials in motion at the molecular level.

According to Brock, CHESS’s cutting edge capabilities have applications for research in fields ranging from physics to environmental science and in industries ranging from bio-tech to aeronautics.

Brock said CHESS has contributed to developing lighter, stronger materials for airplane wings, discovering treatments for AIDS, and building more efficient fuel injectors for cars, in addition to contributing to two Nobel Prize winning projects. CHESS-U’s enhanced capabilities are expected to attract researchers and companies looking to carry out experiments in ever-expanding fields of inquiry.

In addition to enabling research, the upgrade is already bringing money to area companies that manufacture scientific instruments. Brock said about $9 million from the state funding for CHESS-U went to Southern Tier companies supplying materials and equipment for the upgrade. Moreover, companies that supplied parts to CHESS are winning contracts to supply similar precisions components around the world.

A video played at the CHESS-U celebration highlighted the project’s impact on ADC, a company that manufactures scientific components in Lansing. Since producing components for CHESS-U, the company has been enlisted to make components for similar facilities from Europe to Australia.

According to Malina, CHESS-U  has already created more than 50 jobs, both on-site and at local companies. He estimates the upgrade has retained about 150 high-tech jobs in the Southern Tier through its use of public-private partnerships. Looking forward, he said he expects it to bring even more business. Companies like Caterpillar, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have reached out to the university about using the facility, he said.

Hochul, who was in Ithaca in 2017 to announce funding for CHESS-U, said she is “personally gratified to see the project complete.” For the scientists, engineers, machinists, manufacturers and others in the Southern Tier who stand to benefit from the state’s investment, work is just beginning.

Featured image: Components of the CHESS particle accelerator. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at or 607-391-0328.