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Feb. 17, 2011 Volume 32, No. 20

At MU’s machine shops, a tool for every challenge

Sam Potts

TOOLING AROUND Sparks fly as Sam Potts, supervisor of the Physics Machine Shop, uses a grinder to machine the face of a drill bushing to .002-inch tolerance. The bushing will be fashioned into a compaction container for carbon. The Physics Machine Shop has earned a worldwide reputation for developing instruments for research in neutron scattering. Rob Hill photo


Creating the devices that drive the science

Tucked away in the basement of the University of Missouri’s Physics Building is a tool lover’s dream. Since 1966, with equipment that can fabricate parts for just about anything, the Physics Machine Shop has manufactured the devices that make the scientific breakthroughs in MU’s labs possible. 

Like the oscillating collimator, which focuses particle beams by allowing only certain wavelengths of neutrons into a device designed to measure them; researchers can then choose the exact angle of neutrons to study.

Or the neutron diffractometer, which is used to determine the composition of archeological artifacts in a non-destructive way.

“If you ask me if I’ve got it, I do,” says Sam Potts, supervisor of the Physics Machine Shop. “Just don’t ask me about the physics behind it. I can build it to do what it needs to do, but I’ve got no idea how the science works.”

Potts runs the shop with the help of Rod Schlotzhauer and Judd Evans. The three have worked for the university in various capacities, but together they have 54 years of experience developing machine parts to exact specifications. They work to the microns, or 40 millionths of one inch. When Potts first started, everything was done by hand. Now it’s all done with the help of computers — and rooms full of tools.

The process is straightforward. Researchers conceptualize what they need in order to perform their experiments. If what they need doesn’t exist, it’s just a trip to the machine shop away.

As soon as the designs, which can range from the size of dimes to huge six-foot braces, are tested and refined, Potts and his staff use a combination of the more than 20 machines — from welders and lathes to drill presses and millers — to begin fabricating. There’s even a new computer-controlled milling machine that can cut three-dimensional shapes.

The MU Research Reactor, the most powerful university reactor in the world, has its own machine shop. The shop’s six staff members support the reactor by fabricating specialized equipment and performing maintenance for the facility.

Among its functions, the shop creates sample capsules that allow workers to insert various materials into the reactor for irradiation to support research or the production of radioactive pharmaceuticals used as tracers in the diagnosis of diseases.

“We not only support MURR’s mission, but also the university campus and local community,” said Mark Richardson, manager of work control at MURR and head of the Instrument Shop. “The capabilities of the shop have been utilized in some cases nationwide through the acceptance of requests for fabrication from multiple sources from within and outside the university.”

The Physics Machine Shop has earned a worldwide reputation for developing instruments for research in neutron scattering. It recently wrapped up its largest project ever, shipping a dozen or so neutron diffractometers to a researcher in Bangladesh. And that’s just one example of the international reach of the machine shop’s work. Potts says he knows of their products in CERN laboratories in Europe, the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France, and in a research lab in China.

“But that still doesn’t stop someone wandering in every winter asking if we can fix their show shovel,” Potts says.

And yes, the shop can do that.

— David Wietlispach