Fermilab’s Boneyard a purgatory for old parts

Fermilab Materials Specialist Todd Wagner runs through inventory at the Fermilab Boneyard, a place where experiments’ leftover materials are stored. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Just about as far north as you can get on the Fermilab grounds, behind a locked security gate, is a place called the Boneyard.

Towering mounds of cables sit beside equally tall spools of wire. A speedboat-sized canister of neon gas neighbors the concrete remains of an underground tunnel. This is the final resting place for leftover parts from Fermilab’s particle physics experiments. That is, unless they are given a second chance.

The people who run the Boneyard are part of Fermilab’s Business Services Section, specializing in inventory control and property management. They work hard to organize and catalog each item: plastic stacked in one spot, aluminum, copper and stainless steel in others. Some of the items have words scrawled across them — “Mu2e,” “NOvA” — the experimenters’ way of claiming them.

Fermilab Materials Specialist Todd Wagner has worked here since 1987. Like many people at the lab, Wagner wears a monitoring device around his neck at all times while he is at work to keep track of how much radiation he comes in contact with. In almost 30 years of working here, he said, he has rarely picked up even a trace of radiation above normal levels.

He turns on a well-worn Geiger counter at his feet to show how its characteristic ticking picks up speed as his truck passes alongside certain objects in the Boneyard. For example, thick blocks of concrete stacked up around the yard contain some of the most radiation — you wouldn’t think so, though, since their dusty gray pallor is not green or glowing as in works of science fiction.

Wagner says these blocks are used for shielding in various experiments to keep radioactive isotopes contained and to protect the experimenters. When the experiment is over, the blocks stay “hot” for several years, which means they are still radioactive. Blocks are constantly being moved in and out of the Boneyard, borrowed by various experiments as needed.

Other spare parts are not so lucky — many have been designed and purchased for one specific use on one specific experiment. If there are extras, or if the experiment is over, they will likely be melted down and recycled, shipped elsewhere, or be doomed to an eternity in the Boneyard.

“This stuff is just sitting there, rusting,” Wagner said. “Almost like bones, it’s slowly going to fade away.”

Ideally, parts will be stored here only until another Fermilab experiment has a use for them, reducing excess spending and waste. Wagner estimates that the lab saves an average of about $200,000 per year from the Boneyard. This year, he said, there’s a chance they could save more than $1 million, since an exceptional amount of the Boneyard’s stores of copper was repurposed.

While the technology in particle physics is always changing, parts such as metal pipes and cables are fairly timeless and can be reused.

“The general rule of thumb is that if you need steel for an experiment, you should come here first,” Wagner said. “We want almost as much going back out as is coming in.”


Fermilab scientists may claim any parts in the Boneyard they think will be useful for future experiments. The lab saves thousands of dollars each year by reusing, repurposing and recycling materials. Photo: Reidar Hahn