The $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source facility, though still powering up, has established a new mark as the world's most powerful accelerator-based source of neutrons for scientific research.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced Thursday that the SNS' neutron beam reached 183 kilowatts on Aug. 11, surpassing the 163-kilowatt record held by the ISIS facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England.

Although the capacity of the ISIS facility is being doubled, Oak Ridge officials said their accelerator is designed to produce up to 10 times more neutrons than now.

The more wattage, the more neutrons, the more researchers can see.

Neutron scattering, discovered at Oak Ridge in the 1940s, is an important tool for studying how materials are made so that they can be improved upon — lighter, cheaper, stronger.

As one example, research will be done at the Spallation Neutron Source for General Motors on thermoelectrical materials. GM hopes to use heat from engine exhaust to power vehicles' electrical systems.

Oak Ridge Lab Director Thom Mason compared the SNS to a "very fancy microscope for seeing how atoms are put together, one at a time, in order to make some material that has some desired property. It might be a protein. It might be some magnetic material."

To do that, "you need a very bright source in order to see fine details. The power level that we operate at tells us how bright our light bulb is."

Mason described SNS's potential to a lab audience that included three members of Tennessee's congressional delegation: Sen. Lamar Alexander and Reps. Zach Wamp and Bart Gordon.

"We talk about responding to climate change and energy dependence," said Gordon, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee. "You are going to have to have lighter, stronger composite materials to be able to accomplish that. These are the types of things that you do with this research."

The SNS, which has 400 employees and first powered up in April 2006, is still a year away from full capacity, Mason said. Most of the research to be performed there will be open to the scientific community. Only about 5 percent will be proprietary.

While much of the work will be fundamental research, Mason said it still won't be "too far away from the marketplace, from real materials that will go in real products that we hope to manufacture in real factories in Tennessee and elsewhere."