Birmingham joins the world's largest nuclear physics research facility

Posted on Monday 29th July 2013

Researchers from Birmingham will have access to the most impressive and advanced nuclear physics research facility in the world as the UK has officially become part of a €1.6 billion international project that will be to nuclear physics what CERN is to particle physics.

In May 2013 the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) signed an agreement that makes the UK an associate member of FAIR (Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research) which is currently under construction next to the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany.

Professor John Womersley, Chief Executive at STFC, said: “The advances in technology that will result from our scientists’ work on this hugely challenging project will be a real asset to the UK in terms of economic and societal benefits.”

The UK’s new member status at FAIR creates an opportunity for UK nuclear physicists to work at the cutting edge in the development of new and innovative applications such brand new techniques for cancer therapy; in the study of high-radiation conditions found in space which will be taken into account in future manned space missions; and in the development of nuclear-fusion energy as a long-term solution to dealing with climate change.

Professor Womersley went on to say: “The UK’s associate member status at FAIR will ensure that we play a leading role in the development of this ground-breaking international project, and that our researchers will have access to the latest, most advanced research facilities. STFC is the UK sponsor of nuclear physics and this milestone helps keep the UK science programme at the forefront internationally. FAIR will be the world’s most important nuclear physics research facility for many years to come making this a very exciting time to be involved in this area of research. It will most certainly provide vital inspiration for our young nuclear physicists and engineers of the future.”

Martin Freer, Professor of Nuclear Physics, who will lead on the project for the University of Birmingham, said: ‘The University of Birmingham is involved in the construction of one of the biggest projects at FAIR, the R3B detector. As part of a UK collaboration we are constructing a detection system which will allow us to synthesise and study the most exotic nuclei known to man which are only found in nature is the cataclysmic supernovae which occur when stars blow themselves to pieces at the end of their life cycle. This element of the broader UK's involvement is a £5M detector funded by the STFC. It is a fantastic opportunity to explore the science of nuclear physics at the limits of our knowledge - the UK becoming an associate member of FAIR cements this opportunity.’

Nuclear physics research is already responsible for a host of world changing applications across many areas of our lives such as providing the technology behind MRI scanners in hospitals, in the early detection of brain tumours and cancer therapy, as well as in anti-terrorism security applications.

With first experiments on track to commence later this decade, fundamental research at FAIR will make huge strides towards our understanding of the universe. It will reveal findings about so far unknown states of matter and still missing information about the creation of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago. But as well as seeing the smallest things researchers will also get to understand the biggest things such as about supernovae of stars, and the elements that might exist for only a fraction of a second on their surface as they explode. Nuclear physicists dream of understanding the structure and synthesis of all nuclear species that are known to contribute to over 99% of the mass of the known universe.

Once fully complete, FAIR will have a high energy and high intensity accelerator complex with several storage rings and 3.5km of beam-lines, and will provide antiproton and ion beams with unprecedented intensity and quality.

FAIR will consist of 4 main large experiments and the UK’s participation at FAIR is predominantly through its £10M contribution to the construction of one of these areas - NUSTAR (Nuclear Structure, Astrophysics and Reactions). It is also in recognition of the input the UK is making to projects at FAIR and its science programme.

NUSTAR is responsible for the production of state-of-the art instrumentation to create and study the decays of the extraordinarily rare nuclear species that will be created at FAIR. As part of NUSTAR the UK has already made major contributions to the world’s most powerful nuclear microscope, the AGATA spectrometer, which is a thousand times more sensitive than any previous detector of its kind. Developed by STFC’s Nuclear Physics Group and a group of six UK Universities funded by STFC, AGATA is designed to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe. It has very recently completed its first sets of experiments and can be moved and operated at different facilities across Europe. The exciting potential of this spectrometer led to the creation of the international AGATA collaboration of 12 European countries involving 40 institutions.

Professor John Simpson, Head of STFC’s Nuclear Physics Group and spokesperson for AGATA, said: “The UK’s membership at FAIR is not only a great opportunity to demonstrate the UK’s world leading expertise in nuclear physics, but also ensures the future of world leading nuclear science research in the UK. As a member state of FAIR, the UK will benefit enormously from the collaborative and creative spirit engendered through the internationally-conceived research programmes. There will also be built-in opportunities to contribute to and profit from new technologies.”

FAIR will be funded 75% by Germany and 25% by other collaborating countries, including Russia and India, in addition to other European states. The new facility, where various physics programs can be operated in parallel, will offer outstanding research opportunities and discovery potential for about 3000 scientists from about 50 countries.