Particle physics as innovation driver

Particle physics is pushing the exploration of our universe to the extreme limit of the infinitely small scale. To achieve this goal, which is one of the most challenging of the present natural science, research physicists and engineers imagine fabulous new machines at the forefront and even beyond the state of the art of technology. At the beginning of a new project the challenges often looks impossible to overcome. But over the years, the scientists have demonstrated that they know how to transform science-fiction instruments into reality! We only have to look at the incredible 27km-long superconducting accelerator the LHC and its monster experiments ATLAS and CMS. And so particle physics has demonstrated to be an incredible innovation booster.

The key to make the impossible possible: the best physicist and engineers of the academic community working hands in hands with industry

This boost is not only beneficial to particle physics but to the whole society! Indeed, since it is a major boost of technology and since technology has many applications this boost has demonstrated to have a direct impact on many domains of research, on societal challenges, on the economy and even on our everyday life. 

Superconductive magnets to peek into the brain

Another great example is superconductivity. We can evaluate that the development of superconducting magnets for particle physics has boosted by at least 5 years the development of this technology thus bringing MRI diagnostic 5 years earlier in hospitals. Knowing the huge size of the medical market and the number of people saved every year thanks to the MRI diagnostics we can easily understand the economical and societal impact of these 5 years’ boost. 

The future of high-field magnets have an enormous potential for neuro-imaging, high energy physics and industry alike

Superconducting technologies are now going through a second revolution with the R&D on novel materials with fantastic properties allowing higher fields, higher temperatures and innovative designs: the superconductivity 2.0. At the same time particle physics is working on even more challenging new projects aiming at world-record luminosity and energies. 

The needed breakthrough

Our capability to actually build magnets with world-record characteristic and in particular magnetic field transforming the superconducting revolution 2.0 into reality: that is the breakthrough we target. This new strong boost of technology can be used to develop magnets with incredible properties allowing gigantic leap in brain imaging or high field physics. The super conducting revolution 2.0 can also transform every-day life through the development of new medical diagnostic or therapy or through its impact on the energy management with the production, the transport and the storage of energy.

Over the last 25 years, the LHC has been a key driver in the development of superconducting magnets, one of the most influential technologies to come out of accelerator R&D&I. The applications of superconducting magnets extend well beyond the domain of High Energy Physics, and are key for medical applications and energy management (production, transport and storage). Future technological advances in high-field magnets will benefit both future CERN projects like the HL-LHC project and FCC study, and will also find application in imaging the human brain as well as serve the global energy savings.

Below more background related to the application of superconductivity in High Energy Physics and Neuro Imaging.

High Energy Physics

At low temperatures, certain materials become superconducting. Superconducting wires can conduct 100 times the current of a traditional wire, and are at the heart of the LHC’s powerful superconducting magnets, whose magnetic field steers the beam around the accelerator ring2. Large-scale R&D&I programmes like LHC, HL-LHC and FCC are determinant for this type of technology to develop and mature. Historically MRI technology merged from the Magnet developments for High Energy Physics in the 70’s.

The LHC currently uses 8 Tesla (T) dipole magnets, which represent today’s state-of-the-art in magnet technology and generate a magnetic field over 100,000 times more powerful than the Earth’s. In the future, the High Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) project (HiLumi) aims to upgrade the LHC with cutting-edge 12T superconducting magnets.

Further down the line, the possible Future Circular Collider (FCC) is currently under study, exploring different designs of circular colliders for the post-LHC era. The FCC requires magnets reaching 16T or even 20T depending on its design.  These high-field magnets would enable the HL-LHC project and FCC study to reach higher particle energies and unprecedented luminosities, allowing further exploration of the fundamental laws of nature.

This jump from 8T to 12T and then from 16T or 20T may not look so challenging but in fact this apparently limited jump in magnetic field needs an almost impossible jump over the wall of physical properties of superconducting materials. In fact a completely new technology based on different superconductor materials needs to be developed almost from scratch.

Neuro Imaging

Magnets for neuro-imaging Scientists and industrialists in other disciplines (energy production transport and storage, Wind turbines) are also keen on R&D&I for novel high-field magnets. High-field magnets are an integral part of the technology behind cutting-edge Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

These novel technologies open a new window into our understanding of the brain, which is a major challenge for the 21st century. These technological approaches are also complementary of the FET Flagship Human Brain Project, launched in 2013, aiming to put in place ICT-based scientific Research Infrastructure for brain research, cognitive neuroscience and brain-inspired computing.

Higher and higher field magnets allow to reach always smaller scales in the human brain may be one day down to a single neuron. The new or future high field MRI are “human brain explorer”. The unprecedented resolution and the new contrasts allowed by such UHF magnets, in combination with innovative concepts in physics and neurobiology, will allow to explore the human brain at a mesoscale at which everything remains to discover and certainly open a new window of opportunities to better understand our brain and some of its illnesses, such as neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders.

As our understanding of the brain evolves, advances in neuro-imaging could also contribute to developing new brain-machine interfaces, or “mind-reading technology”, that could translate brain activity measured with neuroimaging into thoughts. (see contributions of Prof. Le Bihan in Annex 6.3) Neuro-imaging studies can help understand what happens in the brain after a stroke, in ageing, and even for psychiatry and the study of mental health disorders. As our understanding of the brain evolves, advances in neuro-imaging could also contribute to developing new brain-machine interfaces, or “mind-reading technology”, that could translate brain activity measured with neuro-imaging into thoughts.  Neuro-imaging is a key tool for the study of the human brains and neuro-degenerative in the decades to come.

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