The European Spallation Source: developing Big Science

The European Spallation Source: developing Big Science
Speaking at the BSBF 2018 event in Copenhagen, Professor John Womersley represented the European Spallation Source (ESS), the world’s most powerful neutron source © BSBF2018

Professor John Womersley spoke at the Big Science Business Forum to outline the development of the European Spallation Source (ESS) and how it is engaging with industry.

The European Spallation Source (ESS) was one of the nine large European research facilities to meet at the Big Science Business Forum 2018 in Copenhagen, Denmark, earlier this year, where they were invited to present their offers to European industry.

The ESS describes itself as ‘a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), a multi-disciplinary research facility based on the world’s most powerful neutron source,’ outlining its vision as being the enabling of ‘scientific breakthroughs in research related to materials, energy, health and the environment, and addressing some of the most important societal challenges of our time.’

Representing the project at BSBF was the European Spallation Source’s director general, Professor John Womersley (who has previously held the position of Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the United Kingdom’s funding agency for large-scale science facilities and national laboratories, particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy and who has led the UK’s membership of the European XFEL, ESS, and the SKA telescope project).

He explained to his audience, which included SciTech Europa, that, unlike the other Big Science projects, the ESS is still under construction. He said: “We are new and we are still being built, and that means that our relationship with industry and with the potential suppliers at this meeting is one focused on buying what we need to install and put in place a new research infrastructure for Europe.

“As such, I think it is important to remember that Big Science is about solving big problems and challenges, but the big challenges that we face are not just those of climate, of the environment, or of healthcare; they are also the economic challenges that many of our countries and our voters are grappling with, such as stalled productivity, wage stagnation, de-industrialisation, and an over-dependence on financial services. And, while nobody has a good answer to that set of problems, I believe, and I think many of us share the belief, that scientific and technical innovation is a key strength to make us more resilient against those kinds of challenges.”

The societal benefits of R&D&I

Indeed, as Womersley went on to point out, research, development and innovation has an inarguable societal benefit; it is a source of new ideas underpinning new high value manufacturing, he said, and it also acts as a “way to anchor high value jobs in a country and prevent their outsourcing” by close collaboration between industry and the research and development sector “through open innovation and through the involvement of universities.”

The societal challenges highlighted by Womersley – energy, climate, environment and healthcare –while on-going and of serious concern are not, he continued, necessarily the challenges that matter the most to many of Europe’s citizens; people are presumably aware of them, but as they do not, at least as far as they may be concerned, have a direct impact on their everyday lives, then they tend to take a backseat to more immediate concerns, such as employment opportunities and economic and financial stability.

Reiterating a point highlighted by previous speakers, Womersley thus stressed that innovation in these areas requires an understanding of the behaviours of materials at the molecular level, arguing that the “family” of big science infrastructures in Europe “all offer complimentary techniques to understand new materials, new processes, new energy storage technologies, by understanding the physical and chemical behaviour of materials at the level of individual atoms.”

“Together,” he added, “we form an important ecosystem that operates for the benefit of European researchers using whichever technique is most appropriate.”

The economic benefits of neutron scattering

He then showed his audience a series of images taken from a brochure that highlights research work that has been done at various national facilities, illustrating the wide array of areas of research and economic activity that can benefit, and have benefitted, from neutron scattering as an analytical technique to understand that structure and behaviour and materials.

“There are real world examples,” he explained, “in energy, environment, and engineering; from the very large scale structures in an Airbus wing to life science applications in crop pesticide take up, heritage science, plastics and new materials, and energy storage.”

Global competition in neutron brightness

“Europe has an extremely good track record in this area and European researchers are extremely good at exploiting the facilities that are currently available. But, we have started to lag behind the capabilities between neutron brightness that are available now in other areas of the world.”

Here, Womersley used the examples of the Japanese facility, J-PARC (Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex), the spallation neutron source at Oak Ridge in the USA, and the Chinese neutron source currently under construction.

“While ILL and the national facilities that operate in Europe now have an extremely high scientific output, they don’t often have the brute force power to compete with these new emerging facilities,” he continued. “So ESS is a conscious attempt by European governments and European scientists to leapfrog; to go beyond the capabilities that exist in these other parts of the world, and the brightness of our neutron beam will be potentially 20-30 times brighter than any competing source.”

Research and technology at the ESS

In order to deliver that, the ILL needs to utilise technology. Womersley explained that the European Spallation Source will use particle accelerator technology that derives from the research and development that takes place at CERN, and that the ESS will go on to have the most powerful proton accelerator in the world. Of course, CERN will continue to have the highest energy beams of protons in the world, but the ESS will have currents much higher and hence a total power that is higher than even CERN can offer, he said.

The ESS will shine its beam onto a tungsten target in our target to produce neutrons; ‘spallation’ is the nuclear process in which neutrons are evaporated from the atoms of tungsten, which are then cooled down to usable energies and directed onto instruments. As such, the experimental setup at the European Spallation Source will surround the target where the neutrons are produced, and so the technology areas that are to be included are to be pushed and expended moving forwards.

“ESS,” Womersley continued, “is an investment of €1.84nb by European taxpayers; the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, it will serve 15 experimental stations… each of them 20 times more sensitive than today’s best, which means: smaller samples and entirely new areas of research that need that high intensity; faster experiments; and the ability to take movies rather than just the static pictures of the things we are looking at.

“We will offer a facility for many hundreds of experiments per year; something like 800 when we are fully operational, which means that each team of scientists will come for two or three days, bringing experimental sample that they want to look at, studying them, and then going back to their home institution to do the analyses.”

It is hoped that the first science at the ESS will start in 2023, and a combination of 15 European countries have pooled their resources to deliver this.

In kind procurement

“One feature of ESS is,” Womersley went on, “that we are depending upon our member countries not just to send us money but to deliver large technical work packages; big pieces of our infrastructure are being built and assembled and designed in laboratories and universities across our member states. This is known as ‘in kind procurement’, and it is a politically astute way of organising a big project because it means that the politicians in each of these jurisdictions can show their voters that money is being spent close to home. But it is also a technologically astute way for us to operate, because it gives us access to the existing European research base in the large research laboratories that exist in most of the larger countries.

“We are building a facility where there has not been a large national laboratory up until now, and we do not want to have to hire hundreds of scientists to design it; we want to use those already distributed.”

Indeed, some 45 collaborating institutions are involved in the project, and the European Spallation Source has an in kind agreement with each of them and, Womersley informed his audience, the in kind deliveries have already started to arrive: the ESS has received a magnet component from the UK, as well as concrete shielding blocks from Spain (because the labour costs make it advantageous to do so), amongst others, including the ion source, the very start of the proton accelerator, which has travelled over 1,500 miles from the INFN laboratory in Sicily, and is now about to be commissioned.

A ground-breaking ceremony was conducted in 2014, and now, in 2018, the facility is about 40% complete. According to Womersley, this means that this year is the peak of the construction activity, and the first buildings have now been handed over to the ESS organisation from its construction partner, meaning that they are now responsible for the mechanical and electrical fit out.

Big data challenges

In common with the other big research facilities, the European Spallation Source will produce large amounts of data, and those involved are therefore consciously trying to change the way that data is used. Womersley said: “we will curate and we will hold all the data form all the experiments conducted at ESS at a single location, a data management and software centre in Copenhagen. That data will be accessed by scientists over the internet through cloud computing techniques and it will form part of the European open science cloud. After three years of exclusive use, the data will become open to anybody, and so much like the data from climate observation or from space telescopes, our data will become a resource that any scientist can use.

“That means that the usefulness of ESS will not simply be limited to those who have conducted the experiments themselves, but also to those who can data mine and find patterns in the results and learn how to exploit this science openly.

ESS engagement with industry

Returning to the focus of this conference, engagement with industry, Womersley explained that each year the European Spallation Source is spending hundreds of millions of euro with industry: “We are also planning to procure about €200m worth of work packages this year across ESS and our partner organisations,” he said. “I also wanted to emphasise that we are at the cusp of a transition from construction to the start of operation of our proton accelerator, but it will take until 2025 before we have the full complement of 15 instruments operational for science.

Key technology areas that the European Spallation Source is interested in acting with industry include:

  • Particle accelerator technology and radio frequency power supplies to drive it;
  • Vacuum technology;
  • Cryogenic technology;
  • The target system to handle the remote handling of target cooling;
  • Radiation protection;
  • Neutron detectors;
  • IT;
  • Lab equipment; and
  • An array of services ranging from engineering, design, and integration, through to the operation of the facility.

“I must emphasise, however, that we don’t have a single point of procurement, so navigating the landscape of ESS means also understanding how to work with our ‘in kind’ model, and much of the accelerator is being procured by our in kind partners in the UK, France and Italy. So we will help you through that process, but as a feature of the in kind model, we have many places where procurement is occurring,” Womersley told his auditors.

Science village Scandinavia

The European Spallation Source is a part of a major investment in research infrastructures in southern Sweden which already includes the Max 4 synchrotron light source, a fourth generation, very high brightness X-ray facility.

“This area between ESS and Max 4 is,” Womersley said, “we hope, a very fertile ground for eventual innovation and spin out because of the accessibility to two world class research infrastructures.

“This is being developed as what is called ‘science village Scandinavia’, a science and innovation campus which will welcome interaction with industry both as users and as potential beneficiaries of the projects, and that will be where the reception, the guest house, and the user facilities for our future scientific users will be located and where the tramway link to Lund central station which will connect our facilities with the international airport which we just heard about will also be.”

The ESS, as Womersley highlighted, is progressing well, and, alongside offering an unprecedented spallation source for Europe’s, and indeed the world’s, research community, it also holds massive potential for Europe’s industry as its procures the technology and services that it requires for not only its construction, but also its operations moving forwards.

This article will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 27, which will be published in June, 2018. 

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