Using superconducting magnets chilled to minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit – as cold as outer space – Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator moves particles at nearly the speed of light.
“It’s a modern marvel, really,” said Rob Roser of Elburn, who has been working on the CDF, or Collider Detector at Fermilab, experiment at the Tevatron since 1994.
The Tevatron has been helping scientists better understand our universe since starting operations in 1985. But at 2 p.m. Sept. 30, a switch will be thrown that will cease beam operations to the two experiments at the Tevatron – CDF and DZero, Roser said.
The Tevatron lost out on additional federal funds to continue its operation.
Roser will be in the CDF control room with other scientists when the last beams go through the detector. For Roser, the moment will be bittersweet.
“It will be like any good Irish wake,” Roser said. “There will be a sad point, because we’re turning off a piece of history that many of us have worked on for much of our careers. But there will be jubilation that we made it this far, because running a detector for 26 years is no simple task.”
The Tevatron has made its share of discoveries after 26 years of colliding particles. That includes the discovery of the top quark, which is the heaviest known elementary particle observed in nature.
Quarks are one of the fundamental building blocks of matter in the universe. Roser was part of the team that made the discovery, and emphasized that it was a team effort.
“It was a very large effort, of scientists on both the CDF and DZero experiments,” Roser said. “You made great friends, and they’re still great friends, because you went through that experience together.”
Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke believes the discoveries made at Fermilab will be felt for a long time, and that Fermilab will make more discoveries.
“I think the science that is being discovered there will have long-term effects for mankind,” Schielke said. “I am optimistic the life of Fermilab has many years to come.”
The goal of the CDF experiment is to discover the identity and properties of the particles that make up the universe and to understand the forces and interactions between those particles. The three-story, 6,000-ton CDF detector takes snapshots of the particles that emerge when protons and antiprotons collide.
In the DZero experiment, scientists measure the energy, momentum and electric charges of subatomic particles using a three-story assembly of sub detectors wrapped around DZero’s collision area.
The Tevatron typically produces about 10 million proton-antiproton collisions per second, with each collision producing hundreds of particles.
Even after the Tevatron shuts down, scientists will be studying the data produced by the accelerator.
“At that point, we will have collected a very large and very interesting data sample, a data sample that we’ve been mining thus far, but haven’t looked at the entire data sample because we haven’t collected it yet,” Roser said.
Scientists will be studying the data for the next year or so, he said. To date, they have only looked at roughly 3/4 of the data that has been collected.
“The more data you have and the more collisions you see, the higher the probability you might see something interesting,” he said.
Roser thinks the new data will reveal new clues about the elusive Higgs boson, which is believed to give mass to matter that makes up the universe.
“This next year will be an exciting one,” Roser said.
At one time, Fermilab had the world’s largest atom smasher. But in 2009, 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, which previously held the record.
Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln, from Geneva, has worked on experiments at both the Tevatron and at the Large Hadron Collider. He had mixed feelings about the start up of the Large Hadron Collider.
“I think anybody who works here at the lab would prefer the Energy Frontier being explored here at Fermilab,” Lincoln said. “On the other hand, it’s not like Fermilab scientists are excluded from working on the LHC. There are two big experiments at the LHC, and Fermilab is the second biggest group working on the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment, and the only group ahead of it is CERN itself.”
CERN, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research, built the Large Hadron Collider.
“So it’s not like the LHC turns on and Fermilab dries up,” Lincoln said. “We’re very well represented there.”
FUTURE OF FERMILAB
With the shutdown of the Tevatron, Fermilab will switch from exploring the Energy Frontier to exploring the so-called Intensity Frontier.
Fermilab wants to construct a new accelerator called Project X, which would delve into the mystery of how matter came to dominate antimatter in the universe, allowing for the existence of all solid objects.
“I think Fermilab has a bright future ahead, it’s just a different kind of physics than what it has been used to for the last 20 years,” Roser said.
Work on Project X continues.
“We know what we want to do, but you need to develop the technology to make it possible,” Lincoln said. “And so, there will be some intermediate steps along the way. Project X will sort of be at the end of the decade.”
If Project X comes to fruition, Lincoln said Fermilab will be sitting pretty for a long time to come.
“The goal of Project X is to make the brightest and most intense beams available,” Lincoln said. “I have no doubt that if this goes forward, that Fermilab will be on the frontier for decades.”
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