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Courtesy of Fermilab and Sandbox Studio

Fermilab's 'intensity frontier' closer to a new look at the building blocks of the universe with Project X

by Matt Rhodes
Dec 15, 2012

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Courtesy of Fermilab

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Courtesy of Fermilab and Sandbox Studio

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The Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE) will stretch from the Fermilab site in Batavia to Lead, S.D.

Fermilab’s Project X – a high-intensity proton beam that could shed new light on the building blocks of matter – just got one step closer to reality.

But Project X would peer beyond our current understanding of reality with a powerful linear accelerator that could explore unknown forces of the universe beyond the “Standard Model” physicists now use to explain matter.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science further approved the development of a major neutrino physics experiment at Fermilab last week that will be driven by Project X in the future.

Besides revealing how some of the basic particles in the universe interact with one another and how the universe may have evolved, the project’s technology could offer broader applications for solving a long-standing energy problem.

“One of the difficulties in nuclear power is how do you deal with the waste and how do you keep it safe,” Bob Tschirhart, division scientist at Fermilab, explained. “The high-intensity beams that we’re developing for Project X – that technology – can be useful in concepts to actually burn nuclear waste and make it much more easy to handle.”

Tschirhart emphasized that researchers would never burn nuclear waste at Fermilab. “The technology could be useful for some facility in the future to deal with nuclear waste,” he said.

This wouldn’t be the first time that experiments at Fermilab lead to practical applications.

“The technology for MRIs was developed by experiments for the energy frontier 30 years ago here at Fermilab,” Tschirhart said.

Project X marks the pivotal shift that Fermilab is undergoing toward high-intensity particle sources to create a steady stream of elusive neutrino events.

“Our mission at Fermilab now is to make very high intensity beams of neutrinos and other particles,” Tschirhart said. “By virtue of their sheer number we can observe some of these rare processes: where one kind of neutrino can turn into another kind of neutrino or an electron can turn into another kind of electron. And the Project X accelerator is the means to do that.”

Neutrinos are chargeless, near massless subatomic particles continuously generated in the nuclear reactions of the sun. About 65 billion neutrinos fly right through you from the sun every second.

The first phase of Project X focuses on two main experiments that look for very rare phenomena only lasting an instant, “one that involves neutrinos and another that involves muons,” the latter being the “heavy cousin of electrons and one of the six leptons,” explained Tschirhart.

The muon experiment has received Critical Decision 1 (CD-1) and just last week the Office of Science granted the neutrino experiment CD-1 approval as well, Tschirhart reported.

There are four levels of formal approval (CD-0 to CD-4). What CD-1 means for the neutrino experiment is that it has further reviewed the project and concluded that “one of the alternatives proposed in the CD-0 is selected and a credible cost range is established,” according to the Office of Science site.

The next level CD-2 approves the technical design and cost, after which CD-3 approval will enable the construction process to begin.

“These experiments require very high-intensity proton sources,” Tschirhart said. “The Office of Science is supporting the research and development of Project X at a very high generous level and we are very grateful for that.”

The project’s multi-megawatt linear proton accelerator will replace the decommissioned circular Tevatron accelerator on the Fermilab site.

The second level of approval was granted to the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE).

“The reason why it’s called long baseline is because we produce a beam of neutrinos at Fermilab – kind of like a flashlight where instead of light [photons] it shines neutrinos – and we shine that beam at a detector that is in Lead, South Dakota 1,300 km (808 miles) away,” Tschirhart explained.

There’s no way to keep neutrinos stable in a fixed space, so the high-intensity beam that will be produced for Project X seeks to remedy this problem by shooting them through the 800 miles of rock from the Fermilab site in Batavia, Illinois all the way to a detector in Lead, South Dakota, right next to Mount Rushmore.

Neutrinos are flighty subatomic particles that don’t really like to come in contact with matter. “The vast majority of them will go through the Earth, flying off into space and just a few of them will interact with our detector in South Dakota,” Tschirhart explained.