ITHACA, N.Y. — It seems like the stuff of science fiction –– explorations into exotic states of matter and the particles that comprise it. But in fact, research into particle physics is at the forefront of science and advancements in such fields as computing, communications and electronics. Some of that research takes place right in Ithaca, at Cornell’s Wilson Laboratory –– a facility that university officials now say they would like to expand. Cornell has submitted plans to expand the research center with a new lab to complement existing facilities on Campus Road.

Constructed in 1967 with various additions and renovations since, the Wilson Lab houses research laboratories, offices and the synchrotron. In a very simplified nutshell, the synchrotron creates a fast-moving beam of electrons, the tiny electrical particles within atoms, and circulates them in an underground ring under the campus. At certain points the beam is abruptly accelerated to create a stream of high-energy x-ray beams that run tangential to the ring. The x-ray beams move into experimental stations, called hutches, that surround the ring, and scientists use the x-rays to see things in the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes cannot.

The state-of-the-art synchrotron and operating facility, collectively called the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), is seeking to add additional lines for x-ray beams. The new above-ground facility would house High-Magnetic Field (HMF) technology and be the first of its kind in an x-ray facility.

This National Science Foundation-sponsored technology would help scientists discover and understand new materials and phases of matter that are unable to naturally exist on Earth. The magnetic field created in specialized controlled spaces within the new building would be 400,000 times stronger than the magnetic field we feel on Earth’s surface, and be used to help develop technology for ultra-fast computers and the next generation of battery-like energy storage devices.

Plans filed with the town of Ithaca call for a two-story, 17,420 square-foot building to be built west of the existing laboratory, but still connecting to the existing synchrotron. Inside would be high-bay research space housing three new experimental x-ray beamlines with associated research hutches, and an overhead bridge crane. A temporary modular office building will be removed to make way for the new addition. The site would also include the usual complement of access paths for pedestrians and vehicles, lighting, bioretention/stormwater facilities, bicycle racks and landscaping with native plantings.

The project itself isn’t especially large compared to other recent projects, but it does have some physical and legal complexity to it. Unlike the city of Ithaca, the town of Ithaca does not utilize a dedicated flexible zoning type for the Cornell campus. Like much of the campus located in the town’s confines, the site is zoned for Low Density Residential (LDR) (the town’s long-term plan calls for an institutional zone like the city’s at some point, but it’s not ready yet.)This means that the project approval isn’t just for the plans, but for a Special Use Permit for an institutional building in a residential zone.

The LDR zoning also necessitates a number of zoning variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals for height, lot coverage, and a variance to encroach on the stream setbacks that prohibit construction within 100 feet of a riverbank – Cascadilla Creek runs along the southern end of the Wilson Laboratory site.

Discussion on variances and whether environmental impacts are effectively mitigated will take at least a few months to hash out. This month, the project is only seeking Sketch Plan review, which is a concept review for initial feedback prior to beginning the formal Site Plan Review process. Given usual timelines, approval of any plans would be near the end of this year at the earliest, and a construction timeline has yet to be provided. Ithaca’s Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects will be representing Cornell through the review process.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at