June 15, 2016

Peter McIntyre

Solar power. Transuranics. Breast cancer. Molten salt. Magnets.

The common denominator among this eclectic list of topics is a rather uncommon renaissance man, Dr. Peter M. McIntyre, who holds the Mitchell-Heep Chair in Experimental High Energy Physics within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University.

Known for his pioneering work with proton-antiproton colliding beams, McIntyre uses his research agenda to develop new technologies for the world's strongest magnetic fields for future accelerators. Among other breakthroughs thus far in his nearly four-decade career, he has invented a way to produce electric power from nuclear fission in a reactor that is intrinsically stable, cannot melt down, eats its own waste, does not produce bomb-capable isotopes and uses a fuel that is 10 times more plentiful than uranium.

McIntyre continues to use his knowledge to ponder solutions to some of today's most pressing issues. "I enjoy the parallelism in developing technology to extend my research and to find solutions to important practical problems," He said.

From Child's Play to Dream Job

McIntyre's exploration of diverse research areas stems from his childhood interest in understanding how things work. "As a young kid, I tinkered and experimented with chemistry and physics in a little lab that I built," he recalled. "Beginning with my chemistry and erector sets, I begged electrical components from our neighbor, the electrician, and became friends with the local druggist. After an episode where I nearly burned up my bedroom, I moved my lab to a small shack that my father built in our backyard."

In that scientific sanctuary of his youth, the budding scientist "followed my nose" to explore many ideas, such as learning about space travel. He recreated NASA's early space missions by building rockets, compounding rocket fuel and using anoles as astronauts. One day he took apart his family's tube TV set to learn how the picture was projected so he could fix the "rolling" picture. His father walked in the door from a long day at work to find his son on the floor, surrounded by the set's innards. Fortunately, McIntyre succeeded in reassembling the set and made it work within the hour.

From these experiments and adventures, the young McIntyre developed a mental image of his dream job -- directing a lab with a group of scientists who would discover new concepts and inventions. That dream job came true: Since 1980, McIntyre has directed Texas A&M's Accelerator Research Laboratory featuring a staff of more than a dozen technologists and a veritable toy shop of high-tech equipment.

Bruce Strauss, who works with the US Department of Energy, has known McIntyre for more than 30 years and values the Texas A&M physicist's ability to find new ways to address current-day issues. "Peter comes up with more ideas per unit of time than most researchers," Strauss explained. "He has a good sense of whether there's another way of doing things."

Magnets That Triple Energy, Target Tumors

Roughly 10 years ago, McIntyre invented a new way to utilize the technology he had developed for high-field superconducting magnets for use in energy applications. "If we can put the new ideas into practice, it might make it possible to triple the energy reach of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Center for High Energy Research in Geneva, Switzerland," McIntyre said. Funds from the endowed chair have supported several of McIntyre's trips to CERN, including one in spring 2005 during which he identified a solution to a design flaw with the collider's then-1,000 magnets that would have limited the collider's ability to reach its design performance. McIntyre's group built the prototype to correct that flaw and later equipped all of the LHC's magnets with the device.

More recently, McIntyre has been modifying his magnet-based technology during the past year to help researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center devise a better way to detect breast cancer very early, greatly improving the odds that it can be cured. Using funding from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), he is developing a superconducting magnet capable of projecting an ultra-uniform magnetic field outside a magnet. Patients will be able to walk up to the unit, stand in the right place and, within a matter of just three minutes, receive a set of high-resolution images that pinpoint early-stage breast cancer with greater-than 90 percent sensitivity -- twice the sensitivity of mammography.

"It does the job with no radiation, no compression and in a short enough time that the cost can be comparable to mammography," he said.

Salt = Safe Nuclear Power, 24/7 Solar Power

McIntyre also led another team that developed a design for safe nuclear power using a particle accelerator to drive fission without requiring that the core be operated with criticality. The fission fuel would be dissolved in molten salt, and the molten salt would provide the fuel, the moderator and the heat transport for the power station.

"It destroys the bad stuff -- the transuranics, which are the chemical elements beyond uranium in the periodic table -- and recovers the good stuff, which is the fuel," he said. 

He currently advises a Boston-based company that is developing molten-salt technology for nuclear power in competition with four other efforts around the world. In addition, he says a major oil company is poised to donate a state-of-art molten salt experimental system to Texas A&M to push this work along -- work that has important applications for other ways to make energy.

"A 'tower of power' reflector array can concentrate sunlight onto a heat exchanger that stores the heat all day in a huge underground tank of molten salt," McIntyre says. "The molten salt heats steam to make electricity just the same as if one were to burn coal for the purpose, except there is no CO, no smoke, no pollution at all. And it makes it possible to deliver the solar power day and night, rain or shine."

Collateral Impacts in the Classroom

McIntyre, who has been a Texas A&M faculty member for 36 years, also finds rich rewards in teaching the next generation of physicists and engineers. His commitment to providing a quality education for Aggies in both the classroom and the laboratory has been enhanced by another major gift beyond his endowed chair -- the new physics buildings dedicated in 2009 and funded through a unique public-private partnership spearheaded by a $35 million commitment from Cynthia and George P. Mitchell '40. The state-of-the-art buildings have provided new opportunities for "research that is probing the beginning of the universe and the unification of the fundamental fields of nature," McIntyre said, along with "a collateral impact through the innovation and improvements in physics courses for our undergraduates."

These physics courses are a critical component in the education of thousands of students who plan to major in a variety of disciplines, from engineering and the sciences to geosciences and other fields in any given year. Take 2014-15, for instance, in which roughly 5,000 registered for the calculus-based 218/208 freshman physics course sequence required of most engineering students.

Between the new buildings and his Accelerator Research Laboratory, McIntyre has the perfect stage to stretch his students' minds by sharing his talent: linking physics formulas with actual design and applications.

"Peter McIntyre is a physicist with an engineering sense, [He] comes up with more ideas per unit of time than most researchers. He has a good sense of whether there's another way of doing things." Strauss said. "His purpose in life is to make people think."

This article is largely excerpted from the Texas A&M Foundation’s 2005 Annual Report, reinvest and was then edited by Dorian Martin for the College of Science.

Texas A&M Foundation 
The Texas A&M Foundation is a nonprofit organization that solicits and manages investments in academics and leadership programs to enhance Texas A&M’s capability to be among the best universities. 

You can support the College of Science with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation. For additional information about how to benefit the college, contact Don Birkelbach '70 with the Foundation at (800) 392-3310, (979) 845-7560 or dbirkelbach@txamfoundation.com.