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Fermilab aims to explore new frontiers

On Wednesday afternoon over 300 feet underground, Physicist Debbie Harris explains how the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search detector, or MINOS detector, operates at Fermilab.
On Wednesday afternoon over 300 feet underground, Physicist Debbie Harris explains how the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search detector, or MINOS detector, operates at Fermilab.

BATAVIA – Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory no longer has the world's largest atom smasher.

But the lab still has frontiers to explore.

"There is no shortage of science," said Bob Tschirhart, a staff scientist at Fermilab since 1992.

This week, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland broke the world record for proton acceleration, firing particle beams with 20 percent more power than Fermilab's Tevatron Collider, which previously held the record.

By using accelerators, scientists hope to re-create the conditions that existed shortly after the Big Bang. The big-bang theory holds that all the matter and energy in the universe originated from a state of enormous density and temperatures that exploded in a finite moment in the past.

While Fermilab is in a race with Large Hadron Collider scientists to find answers to these questions, it also is collaborating with them.

"It's a healthy competition," Tschirhart said. "When you discover something, you have to explain exactly what you did. There is no such thing as private information in science."

Tschirhart believes the future of Fermilab lies in neutrino research, specifically
Project X, which would shoot a beam of particles underground from Fermilab to a detector in Ash River, Minn., near the Canadian border.

Fermilab recently received $14.9 million in federal government stimulus funds toward Project X, which would be the longest neutrino beam in existence. The experiment will delve into the mystery of how matter came to dominate antimatter in the universe, allowing for the existence of all solid objects.

"There are so many things that we just assumed to be true," Tschirhart said. "That's what I do for a living – I kill theories."

Northern Illinois University physics professor Gerald Blazey believes Fermilab has positioned itself well for the future.

"Fermilab has positioned itself to be a participant in whatever is next," Blazey said. "With Project X, a world of scientific opportunity opens up."

Fermilab has made its share of discoveries in its 40-year-plus history. The top quark was discovered at Fermilab's Tevatron in 1995.

It is the heaviest known elementary particle observed in nature. Quarks are one of the fundamental building blocks of matter in the universe.

Having a 6,800-acre physics laboratory doing groundbreaking research in one's backyard has added prestige to Batavia, said Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke, along with a lot more.

"It's helped us control our growth," Schielke said. "Having an environmentally sensitive neighbor to the east of us has been a blessing."

The laboratory also has become an integral part of the community.

"There are 300 people who live in Batavia who work at Fermilab," Schielke said.

Fermilab employs about 2,000 people.

The future is now at Fermilab, where Fermilab physicist Debbie Harris is studying the way neutrinos interact in matter. The experiments are carried out 350 feet below ground.

"Neutrinos are so small we can't measure how big they are," Harris said. "They also are extremely light."

Even though the Large Hadron Collider is off and running, Fermilab's Tevatron will remain operational through at least 2010.

Fermilab officials believe that the Tevatron could still make some groundbreaking discoveries.

"The discovery of the Higgs boson, which is sort of the holy grail, is not out of the bounds of possibility," said Judy Jackson, director of Fermilab's Office of Communication. "Fermilab could catch a glimpse of it here."

The Higgs boson is better known as the "God particle" because it is believed to give mass to matter that makes up the universe.

And if you think that all of this is just scientists playing with expensive toys, think again. Jackson said the research has already produced many practical applications.

"Every radial tire uses particle accelerator technology, which saves a pound of rubber for every tire," Jackson said. "A Butterball turkey is wrapped in shrink wrap that was treated with beams from particle accelerators. There are accelerators in use in hospitals.

To help plan its future, Fermilab is seeking nominations for members to serve on a new Community Advisory Board. Community members are invited to nominate themselves or others.

"We are asking neighbors to give us their perspective and advice," said Judy Jackson, director of Fermilab's Office of Communication. "It helps us to do a much better job of planning the lab's future when we have this voice."

Monday is the deadline for nominations. More information is at or by calling 630-840-3351.

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