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Designing and building a particle accelerator requires exceptional technical and engineering expertise. But it does not end there. Operating such facilities, not to mention maintaining and controlling them, takes the very latest state-of-the-art technologies. These help ensure the smooth work of the complex machines, the successful realization of the experiments or measurements carried out, and, last but not least, the staff’s safety. This expertise is also put to work outside the walls of a particle accelerator tunnel. This is why we decided to dedicate our second blog post of the series “Particle accelerator toolbox” (read Part I here) to the technological solutions that help run particle accelerators.
The complexity of a particle accelerator should not be underestimated. It takes decades to build one and hundreds of highly specialized experts to operate it once the last bolt is in place in the brand-new facility. Its massive scale, inaccessibility (in some cases), abundance of interconnected elements, and extreme operating conditions make it an arduous task to complete. To ensure the impeccable functionality and precision of a particle accelerator, physicists and engineers work together to develop ingenious, ground-breaking solutions in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cooling and cryogenics, sensor technologies, control systems, radiation measurements, and many more. Applied to industrial needs, these technological solutions help develop novel products and processes.
Colder than outer space
One of the biggest challenges particle accelerator facilities face is the need for operations under extreme conditions. For instance, the operating temperature of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is colder than outer space. Such low temperatures allow for superconductivity but are not very comfortable for the maintenance team. In fact, the LHC is the world’s largest cryogenic installation. In order to manage such a system, a reliable thermometric measurement chain needed to be designed that would work under extreme vacuum conditions. In addition, CERN has developed cryogenic safety software to protect against overpressure. It is already being used in research laboratories, and potential applications domains range from the food industry to cryogenic techniques in medicine.
Keep it cool!
Dealing with such extreme conditions makes it crucial to be able to mitigate any risks related to fire, smoke, radiation, or gas. It is especially difficult in a complex underground system of interconnected spaces, such as the LHC. This is ensured by novel cooling and ventilation systems and a sophisticated pressure cascade management system that monitors and controls pressure differences across tunnels and caverns. This technology could help improve safety in underground transportation infrastructure, at energy plants, or in mines.
Cooling systems also prevent CERN’s delicate detector electronics from overheating. A compact and transportable version of TRACI, one such system developed at CERN, is already being industrialized. Maximizing the cooling efficiency from inexpensive CO2, which is also environmentally more friendly than other traditional coolants, it is significantly more sustainable. It is primarily used in research labs, but its future applications could be as broad as food refrigeration, industrial air conditioning, data center cooling, and many more.
The 150 millionth sense
Managing the environmental conditions of the particle accelerator tunnel and its components requires intricate, heterogeneous detector and sensor systems. Over 150 million sensors in the LHC serve as the eyes, ears, noses, and fingers of CERN’s experts, monitoring the situation and supplying timely information about the state of affairs. (By way of comparison, only a few hundred sensors help pilots operate a plane.) These include gaseous detectors, silicon sensors, scintillators for ionizing radiation detection, robust long-distance sensors, and more. Functioning under extreme radiation, these sensors are of particular interest for aerospace, medical imaging, and nuclear energy applications, to name a few. And their use in agriculture is notably surprising. The sensors are integrated into the irrigation system, where they help monitor the temperature, humidity, concentration of pesticides, fertilizers and enzymes in the soil of cultivated fields.
Hiding the complexity from the user
Another important piece of technology that accelerators rely on is control systems. Not only do they reduce human errors and optimize costs, but they also hide the complexity of interconnected heterogeneous systems from the users. Experience in automating the control process, new verification methods, and the incorporation of multiple vendors could help optimize and atomize industrial manufacturing processes, grid operations, and even patient monitoring. Another application field for such systems is security and critical infrastructure monitoring. For example, start-up Securaxis SA is already leveraging the modular control and monitoring system C2MON, developed at CERN. Its ability to handle high throughput and process information from multiple sources combined with the start-up’s proprietary software and hardware makes for a creative security solution for smart cities based on acoustic sensors.
Autonomous and precise
However, despite this constant monitoring, particle accelerators require regular inspections and occasional interventions. Developments in the field of robotics, including software, augmented reality tools, and man-machine training, allow for autonomous and remote manipulations that could also be applied to the development of a navigating system for visually impaired people or driver-assistance systems. In addition, the modular and flexible design of CERN’s robotic platforms makes it possible to perform delicate interventions indoors and in demanding environments: an important factor, for example, in rescue operations – it prevents staff from being exposed to radiation and other hazards.
Radiation under control
Speaking of radiation: CERN has over 50 km of radiation zone and manages 11 thousand personal dosimeters. To deal with it, CERN has developed a number of radiation-measuring systems and simulation software for radioactive materials to evaluate the activation level of such materials and to reduce the time and costs necessary to manage nuclear waste. This technology can be applied to environmental monitoring, metal recycling, radiotherapy cancer treatment centers, and radiation protection technologies, not to mention space and medical applications.
Key competence – acceleration
Finally, even though the above-mentioned expertise and technologies are vital for particle accelerator facilities, these alone do not ensure smooth operation. After all, the core functionality of a particle accelerator is to accelerate, measure and control a particle beam. It is over 10 billion kilometers (almost 250 thousand times longer than the equator) that a proton beam travels during the stable operation of the LHC. It requires decades of experience in the simulation, design, and construction of accelerating structures and bespoke hardware and software for beam diagnostics and control. Compact accelerating structures, particle beam measurement techniques, and optical beam loss monitoring are applicable to cancer therapy, material analysis, security systems, radio pharmacy, and nuclear facilities.
Just the tip of the iceberg
Operating a particle accelerator facility requires experience and expertise in many technological fields. Some of them we’ve mentioned in this blog post. However, they are not limited to this list – the industrial application areas mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. And more is yet to come. In our next blog, we will take a look at the technologies needed to process the data collected during particle accelerator experiments. Stay tuned!
Innovate with accelerator technologies
To facilitate access to this expertise and to encourage the industry to use the solutions developed at research centers such as CERN and the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI in Switzerland, an entrepreneurship program – the Swiss Business Incubation Centre BIC of CERN Technologies – was launched in 2018. Its two-year incubation program provides technical support for project development, business coaching, and CHF 50,000 seed money. The 2019 edition is now going into Phase 2. 2020 Swiss BIC of CERN Technology is already in planning. Don't miss your chance to apply.