Have you ever wondered what the point of CERN is? Are there any CERN spin-off developments to speak of?
CERN, like other research institutes, has acted like an innovation incubator for many decades.
CERN or the Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research) to give it its full name, was established in 1954 and has since made some very interesting scientific discoveries. Thanks to this work, it has also helped develop some interesting real-world technologies.
Probably the most important was its role in the development of the World Wide Web. But there are many, many more.
Why is CERN important?
The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Laboratory in Switzerland is an amazing piece of technology. It fires particles around a 17-mile (27.4 km) underground tunnel directly at each other at nearly the speed of light.
It's a primary function is to provide particle accelerators, and other infrastructure, for the study of high-energy physics research.
It has enabled scientists to explore some of the lesser known and more theoretical aspects of physics and helps us, in part, further our species' understanding of the universe around us.
Whilst this all sounds incredibly fun and interesting, you might ask yourself why this is of any real importance to humankind? Is it really worth all the investment in time, energy and money spent on it to date?
Thankfully this very question was posed during a Reddit AMA by one FantastiqueDutchie who asked:
"Explain to me like I am five: why are you doing this and what makes it important? What could we/you do with this data in the future?"
Answers were given by some CERN staff working on various projects from ALICE to ATLAS. They ranged from pure curiosity, or "because we can", to some real-world, life-saving tech.
But the most profound answer was given by Steve Goldfarb.
"Over time, we have found that every time we learn something new about nature, the information is used by our children or their children to help them survive," Goldfarb wrote in the AMA.
"We do not know exactly what our discoveries and measurements will lead to," Goldfarb wrote.
"It is too soon to say. But, we do know they will contribute significantly to our understanding of our world. And, as a human being, we have no choice but to pursue them. It is a question of survival."
Seem fair, but some might consider this a cop-out. Whilst most of the work does border on the more theoretical it has lead to some real-world applications for humanity at large.
What has CERN invented?
The CERN project has made significant advancements in three main fields:
2. Detectors, and;
Nestled within these fields is a whole suite of other related technologies that have been advanced by CERN scientists and engineers. These include things like developments in cryogenics, ultra-high vacuums, particle tracking, radiation monitoring, superconductivity and many more.
Many of these advancements, like the work at NASA, have led to real-life spin-off technology that is beneficial to society at large. They fall broadly into applications in medicine and biomedical technologies, aerospace applications, and safety, environment, industry 4.0 and emerging technologies.
For a full list of such technology, you can check out CERN's own website for more details.
1. Gas Electron Multiplier is used in medicine
Sector: Medical Sciences
An interesting spin-off from the research at CERN is the GEM (Gas Electron Multiplier). This specialized gas detector is used extensively in high energy physics and has been adopted in medical imaging, biotechnology, material analysis, radiation therapy dosimetry, radiation detection monitoring and even astrophysics.
Patented by CERN, it now has over 50 research and development licensees around the world.
As of 2017, GEM has been deployed in two variants:
1. The optical readout GEM - This has the Optical readout GEM, which is being tailored for online dose imaging in hadron therapy and;
2. The GEMpix detector - which has applications in conventional radiotherapy.
2. CERN tech is now used in hybrid pixelated detectors
Sector: Various - Photography/Imaging
Another CERN spin-off is the hybrid pixelated detector that is used in a range of applications in science and industry. Amsterdam Scientific Instruments (ASI) recently received its third license from CERN to develop the technology further.
Their most recent work includes the Timepix3 technology which is set to be a core component for ASI's next generation of pixel cameras. They hope to now be able to commercialize the technology for use in X-ray imaging, electron microscopy to particle track reconstruction.
“[We] are proud to be a commercialization partner of CERN for Medipix technology,” said Hans Brouwer, CEO of ASI. Hans highlights that the license demonstrates a next step in the ongoing and fruitful collaboration between ASI and CERN.
3. CERN software could soon be used in various fields
Sector: Various - Big data
CERN's collSpotting software was developed to help visual and navigate complex data sets. It is an ongoing development at CERN and has proved to be instrumental to research and development of large-scale visual analytics to support semantic data and knowledge fusion.
CERN, BME, and WIGNER signed a collaboration agreement in 2017 for further development of it for other industries. collSpotting will, hopefully, be applied in the future for four main fields outside of CERN.
2. IT networks analytics;
3. Neurology, and;
4. Mapping the educational space.
4. LHC software could soon be used in factories
In 2017, LG Display (a global display manufacturer with factories around the world) signed a license agreement with CERN for their Controls Middleware Software. This software will be used to help with factory automation in many of LG Display's plants around the globe.
The software itself was developed by CERN for the Large Hadron Collider. Its role is to provide a common software communication infrastructure for the accelerator's controls.
This software will now be adapted to its new application at LG Display. As of September 2017, training of four Korean engineers was completed, contributing further to the knowledge transfer project.
5. CERN chips will now be used in nuclear and space environments
Sector: Various - Nuclear and Space
A Belgian company recently received a license from CERN to develop one of their chips for use in nuclear and space environments. The chip is a specially designed radiation-tolerant 10W Synchronous Step-Down Buck DC/DC converter chip.
The company, MAGICS, specialized in the design of radiation-hardened integrated circuits and feel the CERN tech could be put to good use in their products.
They will now work with CERN to help incorporate the chips in digital, so-called rad-hard, sensor Internet of Things (IoT) networks.
6. New nanosatellite has some CERN tech onboard
A technological nanosatellite, VZLUSAT-1, has recently been developed in collaboration between CERN and several Czech partners including Czech Technical University (CTU).
One of the satellite's apparatus, its "Lobster Eye" optical system, was developed by one of the Czech companies. This device's detection system uses technology based on CERN's pixel sensor Timepix.
Timepix was also the product of another spin-off collaboration between Cern and another company called Medipix.
7. CERN engineers developed touchscreen and tracker ball tech in the 70s
Back in the 1970s, CERN engineers developed an early touchscreen and tracker ball device for use on their Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS). Bent Stumpe, a Dutch Engineer, developed the technology to help operate the controls of the, then, under-construction SPS control room.
At the time, the original design for the controls consisted of thousands of buttons, knobs, switches, and oscilloscopes to operate the machine.
“We had very little time to design the new system and demonstrate that both the hardware and the software could really work”, recollects Bent Stumpe.
“Thanks to Chick Nichols from the CERN EP workshop, it was possible to evaporate a very thin layer of copper on a flexible and transparent Mylar sheet. This allowed us to produce the very first prototype of a capacitive touch screen.”
Several were finally built which also included a tracker ball device that could identify x-y movements to move a cursor on the screen.
“We can’t say that this was the forerunner of the mouse. The first mouse was also an x-y pointing device, but worked on a different mechanical and electrical principle”, Bent Stumpe explained.
The SPS touch-screens originally developed by Bent Stumpe were in operation from 1973 until the new LHC Control Room was installed in 2008.