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Science

Particle accelerator FAIR: breaking ground for a universal lab

The construction of a vast particle accelerator has started in the German city of Darmstadt. Researchers want to find out how matter developed after the Big Bang 13.8 million years ago.

FAIR is a huge joint project: Among those present at the groundbreaking ceremony today at Darmstadt were researchers from India, Finland, France, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden, the UK and Germany. The actual breaking of the ground took place years ago. Caterpillars have been moving soil in preparation of the huge underground accelerator project at the Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) for a long time.

In 2025 the FAIR Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research in Europe (FAIR) is supposed to start operating. FAIR will be an extension of the existing GSI (Society for Heavy Ion Research) particle accelerator in Darmstadt, southern Germany, which researchers have used for nuclear research, plasma research, materials science and medical research in the past decades.

Construction site Fair particle accelerator (picture-alliance/dpa/GSI Helmholtzzentrum)

The construction site of FAIR is located right next to the existing GSI

What's new about FAIR?

The current accelerator "SIS18" has a diameter of 218 meters. It can accelerate ions to 90 percent of the speed of light. That's about 270,000 kilometers per second. FAIR will give the particles an additional push and get them to almost the speed of light.

The new accelerator ring has a diameter of 1,100 meters and is located 17 meters below the surface. It will be one of a total of eight new ring accelerators, which are all interconnected.

The complex design of the facility will enable researchers to conduct a large variety of experiments with all kinds of elements including hydrogen ions as well as radioactive isotopes such as uranium.

Furthermore, it will be possible to generate antiprotons. Those are particles of anti-matter that hold the same charge as a proton - just that it is negative, not positive.

Linear accelerator UNILAC (picture-alliance/dpa/GSI Helmholtzzentrum)

The linear accelerator UNILAC is one of the many existing systems at GSI. It will later become a preaccelerator for FAIR.

For the huge amount of data that the new particle accelerator will generate, the GSI has recently inaugurated a new data center. Currently, it only works at a fraction of its future capacity. But it is ready to support the scientists in their work - and they'll need it.

What kind of experiments?

There will be more than 3,000 scientists from all over the world at FAIR. They will design their various experimental set-ups at universities and research institutes and then implement the experiments at FAIR.

There will be four large departments: Atomic, Plasma Physics and Application (APPA), Compressed Baryonic Matter (CBM), Nuclear Structure, Astrophysics and Reactions (NUSTAR) and Antiproton Annihilation (PANDA).

What's it good for?

The versatility of the facility is a great advantage for fundamental research. All kinds of theoretical conditions or those observed somewhere in outer space can be recreated under laboratory conditions in a very small space - at an atomic scale.

HADES detector at the GSI (picture-alliance/dpa/GSI Helmholtzzentrum)

The HADES detector will be used to create extremely dense matter - like in a neutron star.

That can include very hot or cold plasmas, extremely high pressures or other conditions that exist only in the inner parts of stars or planets.

Those experiments are designed to help scientists get a better understanding of how our universe developed after the Big Bang and how it evolved to look like we know it today.

Maybe, one day, that will help solve the mystery of anti-matter. It is something we do know exists in large parts of our universe - but we still don't know exactly  what it is.

Besides those fundamental questions of our existence, there are many more applications, for example in biology and physics. At FAIR, it will be possible to investigate the effects of cosmic rays on our cells.

Also, scientists can test materials or electronic components that are supposed to be deployed in space ships - maybe in those flying to the sun or close to giant gas planets.

All this is just a tiny fraction of what scientists can do at FAIR. Certainly, the longer the facility is in operation, the more ideas will come flowing. And one thing is always certain in fundamental research: nobody ever knows what the exact outcome of an experiment will be. We may certainly expect some surprises.

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