Unique magnets to supercharge the world's largest particle accelerator
An EU-funded project is driving innovation and commercial interest in novel magnet technologies that are set to play a key role in deepening our understanding of the universe by means of a planned major upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator.
© ANTEC, 2018
The LHC, located at CERN in Switzerland, has already led to remarkable discoveries since physicists began using it to spin particles around a circuit at close to the speed of light almost a decade ago. It has confirmed the existence of the long-sought Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that forms the cornerstone of the standard model of particle physics. In the future it could reveal mysterious dark matter or allow physicists to unlock more subatomic secrets of the cosmos by exploring supersymmetry.
However, to continue to push the frontiers of high-energy physics, the worlds most powerful particle accelerator must become even more potent, increasing its luminosity by a factor of five to accelerate the pace of particle collisions and enable scientists to gather more data. For that to happen, the LHC needs unique superconducting magnets which are currently unavailable anywhere in the world.
To address the challenge, the EU-funded QUACO project has launched a pre-commercial procurement strategy that will spur innovation in magnet technologies among a pool of competing commercial suppliers. This will provide the LHC with the magnets it needs while also creating opportunities across other industries.
Rather than launching a public tender and selecting one offer for superconducting magnets, with pre-commercial procurement there is a possibility to fund different innovation avenues and learn from different approaches from competing companies. Ultimately, this has the potential of generating more than a single solution and opening up new technical and scientific innovation pathways.
Bringing together several research infrastructures with similar technical requirements in magnet development, QUACO is enabling partners to avoid unnecessary duplication of design efforts and reduce overall costs. By pooling procurement efforts, the QUACO partners will act as a single buyer group with sufficient momentum for potential suppliers to consider developing and producing advanced magnets, thereby bridging the gap between cutting-edge research and development and the existing market for novel magnet technologies.
To that end, the project is the first initiative supported by the European Commissions Directorate-General for Research and Innovation to follow the pre-commercial procurement strategy, which helps public institutions drive innovation from the demand side.
Bridging the research to market gap
The LHC has an urgent need for magnet technologies at the cutting edge of science that are currently not on the market and are not even being considered by commercial suppliers due to their novelty and low volume production demands. Among others, the LHC needs two-in-one quadrupoles magnets that enable strong focusing of particle beams, says QUACO project coordinator Marcello Losasso of CERNs Knowledge Transfer Group. In QUACO, we are aiming to produce first-of-a-kind two-in-one quadrupoles magnets.
The prototype magnets being developed in the project rely on state-of-the art design, simulation and manufacturing techniques targeting efficiency, reliability and achieving economies of scale that would make commercial production viable in the future.
The commercial application potential for this technology is too low at this time, but that is set to change, Losasso says. Not only does the Large Hadron Colliders HL-LHC upgrade project need these magnets but next-generation particle accelerators will very likely be built with thousands of magnets similar to those we are investigating.
There are currently around 40 000 particle accelerators in operation around the world, although only a small number of them are, like the LHC, used for high-energy physics research. Others are deployed in a variety of fields such as medical applications, the energy industry, material development and engineering. These much smaller cousins of the LHC are enabling technological breakthroughs such as creating particle beams to destroy cancer tumours, improving the design of fuel injection systems to make cleaner vehicles, or eradicating bacteria to prevent food-borne diseases.
The potential of QUACO to impact these and other sectors is therefore very high, and will also create opportunities for large and small specialised companies to increase the pace of their own research and technology development, Losasso says.
Based on the success of QUACO, CERN plans to use pre-commercial procurement for other aspects of its upgrade of the LHC.