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Fermilab planning to study neutrinos to understand more about universe

BATAVIA – In 1995, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s Tevatron particle accelerator discovered the top quark, giving scientists additional insight into how the universe formed.

Quarks are among the fundamental building blocks of matter in the universe. Despite the groundbreaking discoveries it made, the Tevatron shut down in 2011 after losing out on additional federal funds to continue its operation.

Even though the Tevatron no longer is in operation, Fermilab scientists are working to keep the laboratory on the cutting edge of scientific research.

“We have a lot of experiments that are already launched, because, of course, we had some idea the Tevatron was going to shut down someday. So we had some time to prepare for this,” said Joseph Lykken, Fermilab’s deputy director.

One of the experiments is the Muon g-2 experiment, which will study the properties of elusive subatomic particles called muons. The experiment features a 17-ton magnet, which attracted attention in 2013 on its 3,200-mile journey from Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York to Fermilab.

In addition, the laboratory recently held a public hearing on the proposed Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and the associated Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. Construction of the experiment could begin as early as 2018, with the experiment starting in 2025.

The experiment will send a beam of neutrinos through the earth from Fermilab to the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota. Neutrinos are elementary particles that have no electrical charge and are the most abundant particles in the universe, according to Fermilab officials.

With the data, scientists hope to learn about the building blocks of matter and determine the exact role neutrinos play in the universe.

“That’s certainly the biggest thing we’ve attempted to do here since the Tevatron started 40 years ago,” Lykken said. “We think it will give us a similar kind of brilliant future that the Tevatron gave us. It’s designed to be not just a national experiment, but something that will get the attention of the entire world.”

Scientists from 30 countries will come to Fermilab to work on the experiment, Lykken said.

“That’s how you can tell if you are on the cutting edge of science, ... when the whole world wants to come here to do it,” he said.

Such research at Fermilab often goes beyond just making a scientific discovery. For example, to make the Tevatron happen, scientists needed to build superconducting magnets that later were used in MRI scanners for medical purposes, Lykken said.

In addition, for many years, Fermilab used its neutron therapy facility to treat cancer patients.

“Those things are almost direct applications because they require particle accelerators to make the beam to use for the therapy,” Lykken said.

Ever since the Tevatron shut down, Fermilab has been working on a new vision for itself, Fermilab Chief Operating Officer Tim Meyer said. As part of the new vision, there is a plan to centralize the operations on the Fermilab campus, Meyer said.

That includes constructing a new building adjacent to the east side of Wilson Hall. The Department of Energy recently gave the green light to move the project along.

“The Department of Energy has understood our plan, and they’ve asked us to do the work to develop the concept for the next step,” Meyer said.

The Department of Energy is the main source of funding for Fermilab. Construction of the new building wouldn’t get underway until 2018, he said. He estimated it would take two to four years to construct the building.

Unlike Wilson Hall, which is 16 stories tall and is a flagship building for the Fermilab campus, the new building would be a modest two to three stories tall, Meyer said.

“It’s not going to interfere with the skyline of Fermilab,” Meyer said. “But it’s something that will allow us to replace some of those old, distant buildings that are falling apart, and bring some people closer to Wilson Hall. This will be one of the major hubs of activity at Fermilab for the next couple of decades.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, said he likes the direction Fermilab is going. Foster is a scientist who worked at Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia for more than 20 years and was part of the team that discovered the top quark.

“The neutrino program at Fermilab is going to be a world-leading program, and directed at solving one of the real mysteries of neutrino physics,” Foster said. “Many of the subatomic particles are well understood, and neutrinos are not. This is why it is really one of the remaining great frontiers in physics.”

Lykken, who has been with Fermilab since 1989, said he continues to be excited about what is happening at Fermilab.

“You never know what you are going to find in these experiments,” he said. “It’s not like you build an experiment and you know what’s going to happen. You build the experiment, and then nature reveals something to you that nobody has ever seen before. So you are constantly getting surprised. It’s always an adventure.”

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