IT looks from the prairie into the heavens like a colossal eye, a hollow circular structure almost a mile around with a pupil of buildings gathered inside it.
But the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a mammoth edifice at the Argonne National Laboratory, is designed to stare into interiors rather than at the heavens.
When the APS blinks into operation in about 18 months, it will enable scientists to see better than ever before the swift dodges and changes molecules make.
The APS, known as an advanced synchrotron source, will create the world's brightest X-rays. Its electromagnetic radiation will be 10,000 times stronger than its parent technology and 10 times more intense than a similar device operated by a European consortium in Grenoble, France.
The APS will throw light on a new vista for both basic and applied sciences. The device promises to bring many lucrative innovations for science and industry.
``The most exciting thing about APS is that it will make possible discoveries across so many areas, from basic science to tangible commercial benefits,'' says David Moncton, associate laboratory director for the APS.
The high-energy beam of the APS will yield data about materials at a speed, extent, and clarity never before possible, even enabling scientists to plot minutely the actions of molecules during chemical reactions.
Compared with current devices, the APS will bolster powers of research so profoundly that ``it will be like using a laser instead of a flashlight to point a spot of light on the moon,'' says Joe Georgopoulos, the leader of a team planning to use the APS.
Scheduled to start up in September 1995, the $467-million APS, the largest project of the Department of Energy, suits the post-cold-war goal to strengthen United States trade and industrial competitiveness.
The technology for the APS was originally developed for scientists studying particle theory; the X-rays were a side effect. But administrators found that more researchers were using the machine for its X-rays than to study the particles themselves.
The facility has risen along with a political consensus that favors using science more for commercial gain.
``There is more of an emphasis than before on the application of science, so the APS has been comparatively easy to sell,'' Dr. Moncton says.
More than two-dozen US corporations have signed up to use the facility and pay a total of $200 million to install their own laboratory facilities. The companies have launched research ventures with leading US universities in a sign of the growing alignment between corporate towers and ivory towers across America.
International Business Machines Corp. has joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. American Telephone and Telegraph Corp. has linked up with the University of Michigan. Dow Chemical Corp. and EI du Pont de Nemours & Co. have allied with Northwestern University. Argonne has approved the research proposals of at least a dozen other consortia.
The ultra-bright beam of the APS will enable scientists to better understand the structures and goings-on of molecules that are essential to a vast array of sciences: biotechnology, materials sciences, chemistry, physics, and geosciences, to name a few.
In turn, the findings will benefit many commercial fields, including ceramics, polymers, semiconductors, superconductors, steel, chemicals, coal, and pharmaceuticals.
For example, oil-industry scientists could shine the high-energy beam on crystals as small as 1 micron, or 1/1,000th of a milimeter. They might hope to unlock some of the secrets behind the structure of zeolites, little-understood catalysts that are vital to the process of refining oil. Such discoveries could lead to a cheaper, more efficient refining process.
The consortium of Dow, Dupont, and Northwestern will use the APS to study the molecular structures and changes of virtually every phase in the manufacture of plastics, says Dr. Georgopoulos, head of the consortium.
The resulting knowledge would open avenues for innovation, greater efficiency, and lower costs, says Georgopoulos, a research professor of materials sciences at Northwestern.
The APS creates narrow beams of X-rays by accelerating positrons - positively-charged electrons - in a giant circle at speeds nearing that of light. Magnets bend the positron beam over a short distance and induce it to release energy in the form of X-rays.
The facility will house several lab sites on the outer edge of the 1,213-yard-circumference ``storage ring,'' the giant circular structure.
In the labs, scientists will use magnets to tap X-rays from the photons racing around the storage ring. They will guide the X-rays from the circular path and aim them at the materials under study.
Scientists have just an inkling of what the high-energy beams will reveal.
``The APS is such a big step forward that we can't really predict where we will land 10 years from now,'' Georgopoulos says.