Since 1967, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) has been the United States’ premier particle physics laboratory, working on the world's most advanced particle accelerators and digging down to the smallest building blocks of matter.

The Dark Energy Camera, based in Chile, can record light from up to 8 billion light-years away and captures more than 100,000 galaxies in each snapshot. The 570-megapixel camera was built at Fermilab and is one of the most powerful cameras in the world. After imaging more than 300 million distant galaxies, the Dark Energy Survey finished taking data in January. (Photo by Reidar Hahn)

Fermilab is located in Batavia, IL and is managed by the Fermi Research Alliance (FRA) for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. FRA is a partnership of the University of Chicago and Universities Research Association, a consortium of 89 research universities.

Fermilab's vision is to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space, and time. Particle physicists aim to discover what the universe is made of and how it works. They study the smallest building blocks of matter using some of the largest and most complex machines in the world. Fermilab supports discovery science experiments in Illinois and at locations around the world, including deep underground mines in South Dakota and Canada, mountaintops in Arizona and Chile, and the South Pole.

Science

Fermilab's focused scientific mission, coupled with accelerator and detector facilities and R&D infrastructure, keeps the United States a world leader in particle physics research. The international Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility/Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (LBNF/DUNE) is an international flagship science project to unlock the mysteries of neutrinos — the most abundant matter particles in the universe that are all around us but that we know very little about. By studying neutrinos, scientists at LBNF/DUNE will paint a clearer picture of the universe and how it works.

To build and operate LBNF/DUNE, Fermilab brings together more than 1,000 scientists from more than 175 institutions in more than 30 countries. The project will drive progress in science and industry around the world.

As America's particle physics laboratory, Fermilab operates and builds powerful particle accelerators for investigating the smallest things human beings have ever observed. About 2,300 physicists from all over the world come to Fermilab to conduct experiments using particle accelerators. These machines not only drive discovery but are themselves the subjects of research and innovation.

The study of particle physics requires technology that is at once sensitive and powerful. Fermilab scientists and engineers build detectors, sensors, and other instruments that behave like microscopes for the subatomic world. They build high-performance computers that use sophisticated software frameworks to comb through floods of data to find subtle signals of new physics, perform data analyses, and reconstruct physics events. They also explore new ways to channel the peculiar behaviors of quantum physics as a computational resource, advancing the relatively new pursuit of quantum computing.

To investigate the smallest bits of matter, some of which last only a fraction of a second before decaying, scientists need something more powerful than a microscope. To study particles, physicists use particle detectors that sense and record information about particles such as their masses, energies, momenta, or points of origin. Different particles and different experiments require different types of particle detectors. The Fermilab detector R&D program develops new particle detection technologies to meet the challenges of particle physics research.

Fermilab has developed a high-power, high-energy, superconducting, radio-frequency electron gun for advanced metal additive manufacturing applications. This diagram shows the cryostat housing the conduction-cooled electron gun.

Fermilab has partnered with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to develop silicon sensors for integrated detector systems and novel readout electronics. Fermilab has also worked on the development of 3D readout electronics and sensors, bubble chambers, calorimetry data acquisition systems, liquid-argon detectors, time-of-flight detectors, radiation-hard sensors, scintillator, and solid xenon.

State-of-the-art computing facilities and expertise drive successful research in experimental and theoretical particle physics. For scientists to understand the huge amounts of raw information coming from particle physics experiments, they must process, analyze, and compare the information to simulations. To accomplish these feats, Fermilab hosts high-performance computing, high-throughput (grid) computing, and storage and networking systems.

In the late 1980s, Fermilab computer scientists developed some of the first collections of networked workstations for use in high-throughput computing. Today, the lab serves as one of two U.S. computing centers that processes and analyzes data from experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The worldwide LHC computing project is one of the world's largest high-throughput computing efforts. Fermilab can store about 500 petabytes of data in total, which represents about 20 times the amount stored by all the LHC experiments in a year.

Quantum computing has the potential to take on the most formidable calculations in particle physics that are otherwise impossible. Fermilab is leveraging this powerful technology to solve problems in data analysis and theoretical calculations.

Technologies

From particle accelerators to the World Wide Web, and from medical imaging techniques to high-performance computing, the technologies of particle physics have entered the mainstream of society and helped transform the way we live.

The use of particle accelerators to treat cancer and help develop positron emission tomography (PET) scans and MRIs are among the better-known examples of particle physics innovations, but there are many lesser-known impacts; for example, low-energy electron beams from particle accelerators provide an environmentally friendly way of sterilizing food packaging. They shrink tumors, make better tires, spot suspicious cargo, clean up dirty drinking water, help design drugs, and discover the building blocks of matter.

Experts estimate that medical accelerators have treated more than 30 million people around the world. The market for medical and industrial accelerators now exceeds $3.5 billion dollars a year; the products that are processed, treated, or inspected by particle beams have a collective annual value of more than $500 billion. Tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians who were trained in particle physics have gone on to apply their knowledge in medicine, computing, industry, homeland security, research, and other areas.

Medicine

Every major medical center in the nation uses accelerators producing X-rays, protons, neutrons, or heavy ions for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. It is estimated that there are more than 7,000 operating medical linear accelerators around the world that have treated more than 30,000,000 patients. Fermilab built the first hospital-based accelerator to treat cancer, located at the Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.

In addition, the pharmaceutical industry uses X-ray beams created by particle accelerators to develop more effective drugs to fight disease. Radiation treatment plans for cancer are powered by software originally developed to model particle detectors, and treatments with gamma rays and protons are delivered using particle accelerator technology.

Particle detectors first developed for particle physics are now ubiquitous in medical imaging. The technology of PET scans came directly from light-sensing detectors initially designed for particle physics experiments. Gamma-ray detectors designed by particle physicists now reveal tumors in dense tissue.

Homeland Security

In nuclear reactors, the amount of plutonium builds up as the uranium fuel is used. Because plutonium and uranium emit different kinds of particles, a particle detector can be used to monitor and analyze the contents of the nuclear reactor core. A prototype detector already demonstrated the potential use of this new monitoring technology. Particle physics detector technology also enables advanced cargo screening.

Industry

Heavy or long-wheelbase vehicles can become stuck on railroad grade crossings, sometimes leading to train accidents. A simple, inexpensive, effective device was developed at Fermilab that simulates the continuity of trains from rail to rail, closing the existing DC track circuit and mimicking the presence of a train. This figure illustrates how one strong neodymium (N42) magnet is used to assure adequate pressure and conductive contact between the low-resistance load on the rails.

Cables made of superconducting material can carry far more electricity with minimal power losses than conventional cables. They offer an opportunity to meet increasing power needs in urban areas where copper transmission lines are near their capacity. Fermilab's partnership with industry to develop the mass production of superconducting wire for the Tevatron accelerator jump-started this industry.

In the biomedical industry, scientists use the intense light emitted by synchrotron accelerators to decipher the structure of proteins — information that is key to understanding biological processes and healing disease. A clearer understanding of protein structure allows development of more effective drugs, such as Kaletra, one of the world's most-prescribed AIDS drugs.

The food industry has used particle accelerators for decades to produce the sturdy, heat-shrinkable film in which meat, fruits, vegetables, and baked goods are wrapped. In addition, ink-curing companies use particle accelerators as an environmentally friendly way to produce the packaging for many grocery store items, including cereal boxes.

Computing and Simulation

Medical linear accelerators (linacs) for cancer therapy spawned a new industry and has saved millions of lives. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 7,000 operating medical linacs around the world that have treated more than 30 million patients.

Tomorrow's computers will be built from materials now being characterized using intense beams of X-rays and neutrons from particle accelerators.

Particle physicists developed the World Wide Web to share information quickly and effectively with colleagues around the world. Few other technological advances in history have more profoundly affected the global economy and societal interactions than the Web. In 1991 and 1992, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) at Stanford University, MIT, and Fermilab launched the first Web servers in the United States. In 2001, revenues from the World Wide Web exceeded one trillion dollars, with exponential growth continuing.

The Grid is the newest particle physics computing tool that allows physicists to manage and process unprecedented amounts of data across the globe by combining the strength of hundreds of thousands of individual computing farms. Industries such as medicine and finance are examples of other fields that also generate large amounts of data and benefit from advanced computing technology.

Atomic and nuclear physics advances benefit from precise mathematical techniques developed by particle physicists; these are now used to predict new materials and molecules. Radiation exposure for spacecraft is simulated using software originally developed to model particle detectors.

Discovery

Particle accelerators are used to investigate the smallest things human beings have ever observed. The Main Injector is the most powerful particle accelerator in operation at Fermilab. It provides proton beams for various types of particle physics experiments as well as Fermilab's test beam facility. (Photo by Peter Ginter)

Researchers use the ultra-powerful X-ray beams of particle accelerators known as synchrotron light sources to create the brightest light beams on Earth. These light sources provide tools for such applications as protein structure analysis, pharmaceutical research, materials science, and restoration of works of art. Future accelerators will create higher-energy beams for both particle physics and biomedicine.

From long-distance oil pipelines to models for global weather prediction, turbulence determines the performance of virtually all fluid systems. Silicon strip detectors and low-noise amplifiers developed for particle physics are used to detect light scattered from microscopic particles in a turbulent fluid, permitting detailed studies of this area.

Technology Transfer

Fermilab is an engine of innovation and provides opportunities for businesses and organizations to partner with the laboratory. The lab helps drive the development of new technologies and new industries as a customer, a supplier, a collaborator, and a facilitator.

The mission of the Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer (OPTT) is to transfer technologies developed at Fermilab to private-sector partners including industry, academia, and other institutions.

Find technologies available for licensing here . Visit the OPTT here .


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This article first appeared in the March, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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