Juergen Thieme
Group Leader, Submicron Resolution X-ray Spectroscopy Beamline
Brookhaven National Laboratory

Science of His Own Design

By Ahmad A. Malik

As a teenager, Juergen Thieme trained his telescope on the heavens, permitting the chilled winter breeze to bite at his fingers. So long as the night sky was clear above his home in Germany, the 14-year-old Thieme would indulge his curiosity about astronomy.

Four decades later, after earning a Ph.D. in astrophysics, Thieme designed his own spectromicroscopy beamline at one of the premier research institutions in the United States– Brookhaven National Laboratory, part of the federal Department of Energy.

Thieme serves as the group leader for a cutting-edge scientific endeavor with a name few outside high-level science would understand: the Submicron Resolution X-ray Spectroscopy Beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Laboratory. His work has been integral in the development of a $912 million, 2,600-foot circular beamline intended to study material properties and functions, using one of the worlds most precise and powerful X-ray imagers.

“It’s versatile enough to host a lot of different experiments,” Thieme said of the beamline that takes high-resolution X-ray images of physical samples. “My task, with my team, was to realize what was originally a two-sentence paragraph on a piece of paper.”

In 2009, after Thieme had designed its beamline, work began on the NSLS II. He now supervises the construction of what has become one of the world’s most elaborate scientific instruments. Thieme has had final approval on everything from the blueprints of the massive beamline to the selection of the contractors who are building its components. The NSLS II, which officially replaced its predecessor across the street in 2013, can perform X-ray experiments some 10,000 times brighter than the original NSLS.

“Six years ago, there was nothing here but green grass,” Thieme said, his tall, slim frame standing on a balcony overlooking his nearly billion-dollar piece of equipment. “As you can see, we have made some progress.”

Recently, NSLS II entered its testing phase, and Thieme said he is confident that the machine will perform its intended tasks. “We didn’t make big mistakes,” he said. “I keep my fingers crossed that it stays this way.”

Thieme built his first beamline intended for low-energy studies when he served on the faculty at University of Gottingen, and that experience informed his work on the NSLS II. After his colleagues in geosciences recognized his role in building his first beamline, he was asked to take on this large-scale initiative in Long Island, New York. Now, he spends much of his time managing the teams at NSLS II. Thieme noted that he enjoys working with colleagues from backgrounds in very different fields of science.

Thieme is in charge of both the vision of NSLS II and its budget. It was his responsibility to build the beamlines with a team of scientists, engineers and technicians. Now he is charged with creating a scientific program so that the beamlines are utilized in the most efficient manner possible. With that in mind, he is communicating the capabilities of his beamline to everyone from environmental to material scientists, inviting them to use the facility.

As part of NASA’s RIS4E Mission, Thieme will use NSLS II to test returned samples from the field. Thieme is a collaborator on Theme 4 of RIS4E – synchrotron studies. Using beamline’s X-ray capabilities, Thieme will help image and decode the properties of samples. This will not only flex the power of the beamline, but will help scientists determine characteristics of rock samples, piloting the procedure for when samples are potentially returned from Mars or the Moon.

Thieme remains resolute in maintaining his vision for the NSLS II – his brainchild of sorts.

“Before I retire, I would like to see that this beamline that we are building right now will be up and running and mature,” he said. “And with that, two more beamlines – that is the vision that I always speak about to everyone here. These three beamlines, if we can have them up and running, would allow us a full range of study.

“If we would be able to do so, nobody else in the world would have that,” he added.

Despite the long hours he puts in while running experiments, a pace he describes as anathema to those who cherish their weekend rounds of golf, Thieme’s passion for his work is evident.

“I told my son recently that here, I can follow my hobbies and get paid for it,” Thieme said. “What I want to achieve before I retire is that this is all really running well. [The first] NSLS did it for 30 years successfully, and I’m definitely part of the foundation here – and if this is really running up nicely, that would be wonderful.”

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