From helping 750 million viewers watch Princess Diana’s wedding to enabling individual neutron scientists observe subatomic events, Graeme Murdoch has helped engineer some of the world’s grandest sights and most exciting scientific discoveries.
Murdoch recently was named director of the Second Target Station project at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is now charged with leading a growing team of scientists, engineers, technicians and administrative personnel in developing plans and designs for one of the most powerful scientific instruments in the world.
As the STS project manager since 2019, he has already played a crucial role in the early success of the mission, which achieved Critical Decision-1 approval from the Department of Energy in November 2020. With CD-1 approval, the project was able to move ahead to advancing the design, further refining cost and schedule, and preparing the initial procurement plans. The STS project is now working on designing the building’s infrastructure and technical systems.
STS will provide cold, or longer wavelength, neutrons to permit unprecedented, transformative new science in polymers and soft materials, quantum matter, materials synthesis and energy materials, structural materials, and biology and life sciences. With eight initial neutron instruments, the capabilities of STS will complement those of the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor at ORNL.
“It’s a tremendous honor and opportunity to be entrusted with directing the planning and engineering of the STS and its supporting infrastructure,” Murdoch said. “Now with approximately 100 full-time employees and eight instruments identified for the construction phase, the team is making progress on the preliminary design and identifying key technical interfaces.”
Murdoch has over 35 years of progressive experience working in technical and management capacities in a particle accelerator and fusion engineering environment. He served as the interim project director of STS since John Haines retired as project director in December 2021. Murdoch originally joined ORNL in 2001 to lead the design, installation, and commissioning of the mechanical systems on the SNS accelerator, which began operations in 2006.
Murdoch’s professional journey began after high school, when he entered an engineering apprentice program that included college engineering courses. He emerged with the equivalent of an engineering technology degree and a determination to work in the field.
“At the time, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, was looking for mechanical technicians and I was young and jumped at the opportunity to work for them and move to London,” Murdoch said.
“I really enjoyed being involved in working with the broadcasting equipment and designing and building novel camera setups for all sorts of outside broadcast events, such as Formula One races and horse races, and I helped install the first ever camera in the House of Commons when they started broadcasting from there in 1989,” he continued.
“For Princess Diana’s wedding I helped install the overhead camera that captured the famous view of her walking into St. Paul's Cathedral with her 25-foot-long wedding dress train. I probably would have stayed at the BBC, but an excellent opportunity arose to work at England’s ISIS Spallation Neutron and Muon Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and that was the beginning of my career in the particle accelerator world.”
While at ISIS, Murdoch earned an honors degree in mechanical engineering from the University of West England, in Bristol. He has since been named a fellow of the United Kingdom’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers and is a registered chartered professional engineer with the United Kingdom’s Engineering Council.
His broad experience at ISIS eventually earned Murdoch a job in 2001 as lead mechanical engineer for the accelerator at ORNL’s SNS project. There he was promoted to mechanical systems group leader and led the installation and commissioning of the accelerator mechanical systems until project completion in 2006. “There was a lot of camaraderie, hard work, and satisfaction in delivering the SNS beam to the target on schedule like we did.”
After completion of SNS, he worked for several years with John Haines as his deputy in the Neutron Facilities Development Division. In 2013, Murdoch accepted the Non-Nuclear Systems Division director position at the US ITER Project, which is responsible for delivering the US contribution to the international nuclear fusion experiment in southern France. After five years, an opportunity presented itself to return to SNS as director of the Neutron Technologies Division responsible for several key technical systems, including the mercury target and instrument beamline engineering, data acquisition and instrument technologies.
It wasn’t long before Murdoch — with his experience at ISIS, SNS, and ITER — was offered the opportunity to join the team being formed to continue the conceptual design and planning for the long-sought STS. “I was very interested in the idea of getting in on the ground floor and helping build a hand-picked team to plan a large-scale project like the STS that would help better the nation’s science capabilities.”
Murdoch and his wife, Iwona, have a son, Andrew, who recently completed his service in the Coast Guard and moved back to Tennessee with his wife and two daughters. The family enjoys traveling, especially to Europe, and Murdoch enjoys hiking and skiing. He said he also spends a lot of time performing do-it-yourself maintenance on their home in Oak Ridge and at a small house they own on Watts Bar Lake near Kingston, Tennessee.
When asked how he sees the STS project fitting into the arc of his long and successful career, Murdoch doesn’t hesitate to say that he’d like to be known for having assembled a top-notch project team that moved the Second Target Station Project towards completion.
“The long-term success of large science projects like the STS depends on the initial upfront planning and completion of a sound conceptual design of the technical systems and infrastructure, long before the first shovel ever breaks soil. So, I would like to come back for the beam-on-target commissioning that’s targeted for some time in the 2030s and take at least a wee bit of credit for the STS being completed on time and on budget,” he said, laughing.
SNS and HFIR are DOE Office of Science user facilities. UT-Battelle LLC manages ORNL for the DOE Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit www.energy.gov/science.