Exploiting high energy physics technology at IARC

The head of IARC and deputy head of technology development and industry engagements at Fermilab, Mauricio Suarez, discusses amongst other things, the miniaturisation of accelerators and the commercialisation of technologies developed for the high energy physics research arena.

FERMI is the USA’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory. Its 1,750 employees, which includes scientists and engineers from all around the world, work to help answer fundamental questions, such as how did the Universe begin? What secrets do the smallest, most elemental particles of matter hold, and how can they help us understand the intricacies of space and time?

Fermilab’s Illinois Accelerator Research Center (IARC) is designed to exploit technology developed in the pursuit of science by partnering with industry and academia to create the next generation of industrial accelerators, products, and applications.

The head of IARC, and deputy head of technology development and industry engagements at Fermilab, Mauricio Suarez, spoke to The Innovation Platform to discuss, amongst other things, the miniaturisation of accelerators and the commercialisation of technologies developed for the high energy physics research arena.

What are Fermilab and IARC designed to achieve?

Fermilab is a United States Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory specialised in particle physics and accelerator technology. We like to say that we bring the world together to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time. Fermilab is located in Batavia, Illinois.

IARC is part of Fermilab. We are a group of scientists, engineers, and business development people striving to advance technologies developed by Fermilab towards commercialisation and, with industry partners, help create products and services that improve the health, wealth, and security of US citizens and people around the world.

How does IARC bridge the gap between Fermilab’s primary mission space of high-energy physics, and the space where industry is willing/able to invest their own resources in order to commercialise new technologies?

There are funding opportunities and a clear process for basic discovery science – applying to the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example – and there are funding opportunities and a clear process for technologies that are close to turn-key applications  – licensing to companies, venture capital funding, etc. The gap between these two has been called the ‘valley of death’. Maybe it’s too overly dramatic, or maybe it’s appropriately named. I don’t know; but what I do know is that it is a difficult area with a lot of promise. We try to bridge the gap by partnering with academia in things that are very close to the discovery area and partnering with industry with things that are further along.

NASA developed the TRL (technology readiness level) terminology a couple of years ago and that terminology has been broadly adopted in the technology development industry. At IARC we try to identify promising Fermilab technologies at TRL level one and two to partner with academia and technologies at levels three to five to partner with industry.

What makes high energy physics applications different is that even though those technologies may have a relatively low TRL level, they have a much higher science application level. They have been demonstrated for high-energy physics technology at a large scale. The question is not if the technology works as intended or not, or if it can be scaled or not. We know the technology works; we know it can scale and solve problems. The question for industry is about how to integrate these technologies, make them cost effective by increasing efficiencies, and make them practical. Not everyone can have a particle accelerator the size of a building to solve an industry need.

What is the importance of miniaturising accelerators, and what impact could they then have on different industries?

Case in point is IARC’s work on an industry-ready, superconducting electron accelerator. On one hand, large particle accelerators around the world (the USA, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, etc.) have been using technologies such as superconducting radio-frequency cavities to increase the beam power and become more efficient. On the other hand, you have industrial particle accelerators that, for the most part, use technology that was developed more than 25 years ago. We envision that if we can adapt what has been developed for large particle physics accelerators into a cost-effective, compact model, that would revolutionise the e-beam industry and make more applications of this technology possible.

What are some of the latest laboratory-industry projects Fermilab is working on? What excites you about them?

Out of all the things we are doing today, I am most excited about the possible applications of the compact SRF accelerator in water and soil remediation and in medical device sterilisation. There are impurities in water and soil today that are very hard to degrade, but an electron beam could do the trick. For medical device sterilisation, the main current technologies (gamma irradiation or ethylene oxide) have important drawbacks. If we can provide a practical, cost effective electron beam (or X-ray beam by-product), I think people will be eager to use the technology.

We have a two-pronged strategy. We are both evaluating the possible use of electron beams for applications with a turn-key electron accelerator, and developing cutting-edge technologies for a compact accelerator.

For the former, we are interested in investigating whether electron beams work for particular applications. For example, we may test whether an electron beam degrades a certain chemical to a target level or kills particular pathogens without altering the mechanical properties of the material. We partner with industry and academia in this effort and are always looking for interesting projects. If readers have ideas, they can give us a call.

In the technology development area, IARC and Fermilab have been working and developing electron gun technology, conduction cooling, advanced superconductive cavity coating techniques, and more. We are now ready to start integrating all this work into a 20-kilowatt prototype accelerator. It will take us around two years to put everything together and successfully demonstrate the prototype. I can’t wait. I even dream about it – I recently dreamed the 20-kilowatt prototype was in front of me, ready to test on sterilising personal protective equipment, and I couldn’t find the ‘on’ button.

What does ‘technological innovation’ mean to you in relation to particle physics?

To me, particle physics deals with accelerating particles at extremely high speeds (close to the speed of light) and smashing them together or into targets, creating ephemeral particles that you need to detect in order to answer fundamental questions about matter and energy.

To get there, there is a tremendous amount of technology that you need to develop and push to its limits. You are pushing the boundaries of technology on so many levels. Depending on your specific job at Fermilab, you may be working on the limits of how cold you can get something (a few fractions of a degree Kelvin), how powerful you can get a beam to be (tera-electron volts), how can you detect something in the picosecond time frame, or how to make the electronics of these detectors withstand radiation.

This requires advances in superconducting magnets, material science, integrated circuit design, computing, new detectors, and beyond. Technological advancement has been an everyday thing for particle accelerators for decades. And technological advancement by itself does, eventually, generate technological innovation (i.e. creation of products and services). For example, the construction of the Tevatron accelerator in the late 1980s, with its superconducting magnets, made it possible for the democratisation of MRI technology today. What we want to do is to be more intentional about this transition and catalyse it. IARC is here to make sure that technological innovation is top of mind and find the mechanisms to fund and develop the technology to the point where industry can take it.

Do you think that industry and commercial applications have a tendency to overlook the potential applications of particle physics/accelerators?

I have worked in industry and academia in the area of technology transfer and technology commercialisation, and it is always tempting to blame the other side – whomever that other side may be. I do not think that industry overlooks potential applications of universities and federal labs in general. But I do believe that the appetite for industrial longer-term technology development has decreased. They are interested in technology that is closer to turnkey for their applications; there resides the disconnect, as the technology applications in particle physics still need to be developed and adapted to very specific industrial needs. This is why it is important to have entities like IARC that look to bridge the gap.

Mauricio Suarez
Illinois Accelerator Research Center (IARC)
Deputy Head of technology development and industry engagements
+1 630 840 6947
Tweet @Fermilab

Please note, this article will also appear in the second edition of our new quarterly publication.

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