Aerial view of Cornell University; Aerial view of Cornell University;

Cornell University Energy Recovery Linear Accelerator, Ithaca, New York

Design for a groundbreaking scientific research centre

In 2010, Cornell University applied for funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to upgrade its ageing synchotron into a best-in-class research facility. The large grant request necessitated a rigorous multi-year application process.

The university commissioned Arup to prepare a technical report, design drawings, and cost and schedule projections to support its application.

Designing a groundbreaking research centre

We were selected to lead the architectural design team due to our extensive experience with all crucial aspects of the project. Our ability to provide expert advice on everything from tunneling to cryogenic lab design and project management greatly streamlined the design process.

Our scope included project management, energy assessment, and structural, mechanical, electrical, public health, civil and hydrogeology engineering. We also provided LEED, fire safety, code assessment, and acoustic and vibration consulting.

Facilitating cutting-edge research

The proposed energy recovery linear accelerator (ERL) will be more than 100 times stronger than existing facilities. The focus and strength of its beams will make it possible to produce images of atom-sized particles for the first time. This will have profound implications across many scientific and technical disciplines.

The Arup team’s comprehensive, tightly coordinated in-house services resulted in innovative technical solutions delivered within the targeted budget and schedule.

Design for change

Cornell needed to ensure that different kinds of experiments could be carried out in the new space and plan for possible future expansion of the X-ray beam lines. The Arup team therefore worked to understand the range of the research being undertaken in order to project future space requirements.

Careful attention to context

We worked with representatives from Cornell and the surrounding area to optimise the design and prepare for smooth operation. Local experts ranging provided valuable insight.

Throughout the mechanical and electrical design for the cryo plant, Arup met with university staff and industry representatives to coordinate work with other campus projects. This led to innovative strategies for maximiing the ERL’s benefits for the school as a whole. For instance, we determined that waste energy generated in cooling the beam lines could be used to heat other buildings.

Sustainable design

The project is targeting a minimum of LEED Silver certification.

The site includes some of the lowest topography on the campus watershed. This made sustainable stormwater system design a challenge. Our solution features separate drainage systems for different parts of the site. Extensive green roofs feed excess water into an underground catch basin, while shallow embankments around the creek treat lower-level runoff.


One key outcome of our technical expertise was the optimisation of the beam tunnel. Electron beams lose energy if forced to bend at certain angles. Arup’s tunneling experience allowed us to design a tighter radius for the turnaround tunnel than has been previously achieved in North America with a tunnel boring machine of the size proposed.

The smaller radius also helped move the tunnel away from existing buildings, reducing construction impact. Our tunnel and geotechnical design underwent rigorous independent peer review by a panel of leading US experts.

Structural engineering

Ensuring a smooth, even tunnel path to prevent electrons from being knocked out of alignment was a must. Cornell wanted to use a single-pour, three-foot-thick concrete ground slab to achieve this. Arup’s structural calculations proved that the unusually heavy slab would work.


Vibration disturbs sensitive research equipment. Having worked on the Australian National Synchrotron and researched other synchrotron and linear accelerator facilities around the world in the past, we understood how to prevent this.

We conducted background acoustics and vibration monitoring to help define site-specific issues. Ductwork and mechanical rooms were strategically placed to control building system vibrations.