Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, June 16, 2000  |  Number 11
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Physics and Industry

by Judy Jackson

Physics and industry.

They both rely on revolutionary new ideas. They both thrive on advances in the highest of high technology. And they both love a challenge. Physics and industry have so much in common they ought to be the best of friends. And yet, their relationship sometimes makes oil and water look like soul mates.

At a conference last month at Sicily's Centro Scientifico Ettore Majorana, physicists and industrialists from Europe and the U.S. met to try to analyze this complicated relationship and to consider ways to strengthen the connection between basic physics research and economic benefit to industry and society.

Physicist Enzo Iarocci, president of INFN, the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare, Italy, who hosted the symposium, pointed to four main links between physics and industry: the physics education of young people; collaboration in the development and construction of accelerators and detectors; cooperative agreements; and interdisciplinary applications.

Iarocci also sounded a worrisome theme, one that resonated throughout the meeting, of declining national spending, both public and private, for research and development in Europe and the U.S.

Physicist Deiter Trines of Germany's Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron observed that one motivation of government in supporting basic science is to stimulate technology transfer to industry. He said that DESY had turned successfully to industry for help when the laboratory lacked the manpower to develop the laboratory's linear accelerator and its associated facilities, an experience that proved profitable for both partners. But, Trines said,

the time lag between basic physics discoveries and their industrial applications is longˇat least 30 years, and perhaps closer to 50 in the case of high-energy physics.

"So far," he said, "there has been no industrial product based on our research at DESY. Perhaps there never will be. But there are spin-offs, including medical applications and synchrotron radiation that can move to other fields and to industry, with much shorter time lags."

In the short term, spin-offs from the advancing technology of accelerators and detectors are often more likely to yield grist for industry's mill than are the discoveries themselves, the conferees agreed.

Sometimes, in fact, the stars are aligned so that tools developed for high-energy physics quickly find applications in the industrial world. Two textbook cases concern superconducting magnets and the World Wide Web.

In the early 1980s, Fermilab's Tevatron required miles of superconducting wire and cable to build the electromagnets that guide its proton beams in circles of ever-increasing energy. Fermilab's demand for large quantities of superconducting wire, a previously nonexistent product, created a new industrial capability. Then, at just the right moment, as Tevatron construction wound down, a new market for superconducting magnets emerged in the form of the developing medical diagnostic tool known as magnetic resonance imaging. Today, hospitals and clinics all over the world use MRI, with superconducting wire developed for a particle accelerator at its heart. From physics to industry to market: it should always be so easy!

And it was that easy, in the exhaustively retailed story of the World Wide Web, developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory. Berners-Lee invented the Web to allow far-flung physics collaborators at the world's handful of high-energy physics laboratories to share their data across the globe. Then destiny intervened, with spectacular results. The trajectory of the Web from physicists' lonely terminals to the

dot.com economy was even shorter and more spectacular than the case of MRI. From physics, to industry, to market: whoosh!

Synchrotron radiation from electron accelerators brings growing numbers of industrial users to light sources around the world. Superconducting technology at both high and low temperatures is slowly but surely seeing increased application. Protons and neutrons find uses in cancer therapy. But such cases are relatively rare, rather the exception than the rule.

Moreover, said Fermilab's Peter Limon, who represented the U.S. at the symposium, the sporadic and unpredictable nature of large world physics projects such as accelerators makes many firms reluctant to invest substantially in the infrastructure and R&D required to supply technologically advanced components. The late lamented Superconducting Super Collider stands as a stark object lesson to firms contemplating entry into the accelerator supply business.

Ultimately, conferees agreed, the fundamental connection between physics and industry is through people, and principally through the training of new generations of physicists.

"Physics supports industry principally by educating and training young people," said DESY's Trines, echoing Iarocci's opening comments. "Besides their physics training, young high-energy physicists learn to work in international teams, on challenging projects in which science and engineering are inextricably linked, and in a world in which projects change every few years. Such an education is very valuable to industry, making young physicists in great demand in the industrial job market."

As Fermilab's Bruce Chrisman once observed, the most reliable vehicle for technology transfer from high-energy physics is still the moving van.

last modified 6/16/2000   email Fermilab