From technology parks to state-of-the-art research infrastructure, Illinois’ R&D ecosystem thrives through collaboration. Illinois’ R&D ecosystem is the focus of this month’s ISTC Catalyst.

Guest Column by Elizabeth Clements, Senior Science Communicator, Fermilab

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab build some of the largest and most complex machines in the world-particle accelerators that smash subatomic particles together close to the speed of light. The laboratory’s newest facility, the Superconducting Radio Frequency Test Facility, will advance a technology critical to the next generation of particle accelerators with the potential for applications in nuclear energy and materials science.

The new facility, which will occupy three buildings and host a 460-foot-long test accelerator, will be the first of its kind in the United States. Scientists will use the facility to test superconducting radio frequency, or SRF, components-the technology of choice for future particle accelerators.

Fermilab is partnering with U.S. industry and other research institutions to develop cost-effective methods to build SRF cavities-hollow structures that provide a highly efficient way to accelerate particles. The cavities operate inside containers called cryomodules, vessels cooled to -456 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature where they can conduct electric current without electrical resistance-hence the term “superconducting.”

Fermilab completed the first cryomodule in 2008 and started testing it in 2010. They are currently building the second cryomodule for the facility. Eventually, the facility will house six cryomodules, creating the test accelerator that scientists will use to develop and design better instruments and advanced accelerator technology. Two additional buildings under construction will provide an area to test the cryomodules and a new refrigerator that will cool the vessels to temperatures just above absolute zero. Construction on the additional buildings is scheduled for completion later this year.

With the completion of the new facility, Fermilab hopes to become a world leader in this cutting-edge technology, just as the laboratory did 35 years ago when developing superconducting magnets during the construction of the Tevatron, the largest particle accelerator in the United States.

At the heart of the Tevatron lie 1,000 superconducting magnets, which steer the particles inside and produce much stronger magnetic fields than conventional magnets. The extra strength allows scientists to accelerate particles to higher energy. When scientists started building the Tevatron in the 1970s, the annual world production of the materials required to build the superconducting magnets was only a few hundred pounds, and Fermilab needed the material by the ton. Scientists and manufacturers worked together to improve the properties of the superconducting wire and developed a large-scale manufacturing capacity. Their partnership enabled the commercial development of superconducting wire-the technology at the heart of every MRI and a billion-dollar world market today.

This September, the Tevatron will shut down, and Fermilab will move forward with future plans to build new experiments at the frontier of scientific discovery. Pursuing a rigorous program at the laboratory’s new test facility to develop superconducting radio frequency technology and partnering with industry will be one of the laboratory’s main focuses. Just as the building of the Tevatron helped lead to a revolution in medical imaging 35 years ago, advancing SRF technology may have the same potential in the decades to come.


About the Author:

Elizabeth Clements is the Senior Science Communicator at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab, located in Batavia, IL. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory advances the understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy by providing leadership and resources for qualified researchers to conduct basic research at the frontiers of high energy physics and related disciplines.

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