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Particle accelerators are mighty complex machines. It takes decades and hundreds of highly-specialized experts to build and operate one. It is not surprising that a sheer mention of it is intimidating, even though they are much more common than we are used to thinking (read our blog on this topic here). However, if you take those engineering masterpieces apart, piece by piece, technology by technology, you might see them in another light – a goldmine of technological solutions applicable to almost any industry. In this series of blog posts, we will take a peek into a particle accelerator toolbox and where it can come in handy.
Particle accelerators are true enablers of innovation. Thanks to them we can better treat diseases, store and transmit more and more information, and even inspect cultural artifacts without destroying them. To better comprehend the role particle accelerators play in different industries, we first need to know what technologies form the basis of these sophisticated machines.
By “accelerator and related technologies” we mean the high-tech solutions and technical know-how necessary to design, build, and operate particle accelerators, to perform experiments, and to store and process collected data. This includes expertise in the fields of material science, civil engineering, industrial control systems, computer sciences, and much more. To get a better overview of this reservoir of knowledge, we will split accelerator and related technologies into three groups: technologies needed to build a particle accelerator, technologies needed to operate one, and technologies used to collect and process the data it produces. Please note that this division isn’t exact, and the same knowledge and solutions can be used at any of those steps.
Use accelerator technologies for your product development!
- To facilitate access to this know-how 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. Use your chance to join the program by applying by May 31, 2019. Click here to find out more.
Titanic scale and micrometric precision
Particle accelerators operate at the limits of precision, size, speed, and power. Take, for instance, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. It is the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It is 27 km long in circumference, which equals the Circle Line in London's Tube network. Its vertical and transversal relative displacement tolerance is, however, only 0.15 mm along the entire circumference. To assure this level of precision, CERN engineers developed novel devices for micrometric alignments and adjustments, as well as measurement and monitoring installations. Their unique expertise in metrology can be applied not only to big scientific infrastructure but also to large-scale production plants (such as satellite components) or to civil engineering projects, such as metro rail systems. CERN's technological solution allows for remote operation and is therefore ideal for harsh environments.
Metrology is not the only area of expertise CERN engineers had to master to build the LHC. The accelerator is situated underground, which added further challenges. CERN has gathered extensive know-how in the operation of heavy equipment in confined and complex spaces that can be applicable to the civil engineering projects (transportation infrastructure or natural resources excavation) and possibly to rescue operations. Among other highly innovative solutions, CERN has developed a compact universal pipe cutter, an industry-ready tool that can be harnessed to almost any pipe, which is particularly helpful in the oil and gas industry or at nuclear facilities.
Designed for extreme conditions
Indeed, the assembly of a particle accelerator is a complex, if not to say Daedelean, process. This is not only due to the highest engineering standards, but also the most demanding conditions under which these machines operate: the LHC operating temperature is -271.3°C, which is colder than deep outer space. This translates into the development of new materials, metals, polymers, superconductors, and composites capable of withstanding extreme temperatures, radiation, and electromagnetic fields. These materials can be a game changer for aerospace, automotive, electronics, and nuclear applications.
Magnets and superconductors are of particular importance for particle accelerators, but not only. Novel superconducting materials and magnets can help advance medical imaging, energy generation, storage, and grid management, supercomputing and data transmission, and even transportation, as Maglev's example ("floating", extremely fast train using magnets) shows. High-current superconductive devices are already being used in long-distance power transportation, high-power superconductive engines and turbines, and MRI.
The development of advanced materials is only one side of the coin. In addition, scientists are working on novel characterization and analysis techniques (non-destructive testing, magnetic analysis, failure analysis, irradiation testing, microstructural characterization, etc.) for quality control.
A whole lot of nothing
Another vital component of a particle accelerator is the field of vacuum systems and technologies. It goes hand in hand with know-how in surface characterization, treatments, and coating, sealing and leak tightness technology, and pressure profile control. The combined length of vacuum vessels in CERN's accelerator complex is over 127,000 m. It is a very large, complex system of interconnected vacuum systems – under high- and extremely high-vacuum – that requires outstanding mechanical and vacuum engineering expertise, distributed control systems, and monitoring tools. This know-how can be used in medicine, energy, the aeronautics and space industry, and cryogenic systems. Among most widespread applications are vacuum-thermal insulations, microscopy, X-ray, and other imaging techniques, high-speed transportation systems (such as the Hyperloop).
More than reliable electronics
Another field of expertise that particle accelerators rely on is micro- and optoelectronics. It is essential, though, for the technology to be able to function under constant exposure to harsh environments. Radiation hardening (Radhard) electronics is crucial for particle accelerators. It is also valuable for medical imaging devices, hadron therapy beam monitoring, non-destructive testing, aerospace technologies, and nuclear facilities. Particle accelerators also require highly reliable chips with low maintenance (since they are often not easy to access), and high granularity tracking detectors, which can provide unambiguous and precise hit information. This technology has also found its application in proton computed tomography, particle track reconstruction for space studies, and high-speed imaging – a non-destructive method that is even used by art conservators to inspect cultural artifacts. The know-how in micro- and optoelectronics is paramount for innovation in telecommunication, healthcare (in laser surgery, for example), big data, and Industry 4.0.
Last but not least, accelerator facilities advance the development of novel high-power, high-efficiency radio frequency components and systems used by many industries: aerospace, communication and broadcasting, automotive, radar systems, medical imaging, and even pharmaceuticals (in a drying process). By the way, one of the first instances of the commercialization of accelerator technologies was in the field of radio frequency: a spin-off from Stanford, today known as Varian, started to sell unique klystron tubes, a high-frequency amplifier for generating microwaves. Today Varian is one of the world’s most successful companies in the field of medtech.
Useful know-how event at the end of the lifecycle
Finally, just like any other facility, particle accelerators have their own lifecycle – from their conception to their upgrade, then eventually to their withdrawal from service. That means that accelerators and related sciences constantly undergo innovation and further development at every stage of a particle accelerator lifecycle. The decommissioning expertise and recycling solutions of research institutions such as CERN or the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI can help industries using accelerators (healthcare or computer chip production) or dealing with high levels of radiation (nuclear plants and the aerospace industry).
Unlocking the potential of accelerator and related technologies
Accelerators and related technologies are manifold. So are their industrial applications. In this blog post, we have looked at many, but by far not all the technological solutions and know-how used to build a particle accelerator. Stay tuned for our next post to see what technologies are used to operate one and to process the data it collects.