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Why Particle Physics Matters To Manufacturing

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 10:48am
Mike Collins, Author, Saving American Manufacturing

This article originally appeared in the August print issue of IMPO. 

When you look at the big questions that science hopes to answer with particle physics, it’s hard to see the manufacturing implications at first.
 
After World War II, scientists used large, high-powered accelerators to smash the nucleus of an atom and look for new particles. This led to the discovery of a cornucopia of new particles, which eventually led to a quantum field theory called the Standard Model. Most physicists agree with the Standard Model, but many think it is an incomplete description of nature.
 
The largest and most powerful of all accelerators is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) constructed by CERN or the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The LHC is designed to accelerate particles on two different beams going in opposite directions. When the particles reach their energy levels, the beams are switched to cause a “head-on” particle collision.
I think it may be easiest to understand particle physics — as well as the questions that will be answered by the LHC — as a 3 stage process that takes years or even decades. In the first stage the research begins with the theoretical physicists trying to answer fundamental questions in science such as how many sub-particles make up a neutron. In the second stage their experiments then lead to many new technologies. In the final stage — which may take decades — these technologies define practical new products.
 
Stage One: Some Big Physics Questions 
 
1. Unified Field Theory – The four fundamental forces in nature are the strong nuclear force, the weak force, electromagnetism and gravity. After his theory of relativity, Einstein spent the remainder of his life trying to develop a theory that would unify all four forces. If such a theory can be developed, it is thought that it would be the “holy grail of physics” — A Theory of Everything.
 
2. What is dark matter and dark energy?  When the Hubble telescope began to operate, scientists found evidence that visible matter is only 5 percent of the universe; 70 percent of the universe is dark energy and 25 percent is dark matter. Nobody has any idea what dark energy might be; what they need is data and that data might be discovered in the LHC.
 
3. Do energy strings exist? String theory is a mathematical theory based on a model of one-dimensional energy strings (think tiny rubber bands billions of times smaller than an atom). Physicists say that string theory will explain questions that cannot be explained in the Standard Model.
 
4. Are there other dimensions? One version of string theory posits there are 10-11 dimensions. These extra dimensions may become detectable at very high energies such as those created in the LHC.
 
5. Nanotechnology – This is the science of manipulating materials at the subatomic level to create new materials with new advantages like strength, corrosion resistance, conductivity, etc. Using the LHC to find even smaller particles than are now known could produce a whole new level of nanotechnology.
 
6. New Forces and Energy – Science has known about the four basic forces for hundreds of years. But perhaps we will discover a new force with almost invisible characteristics such as dark energy. Finding a new force or finding out more about the four forces could lead to new sources of energy.
 
Stage Two: Technology and Applications
 
Medicine – Particle accelerators and detectors first developed for particle physics are now used by every major medical center in the nation to treat and diagnose millions of patients. Smaller linear accelerators are now being used to attack cancer tumors. It is possible to send a beam of protons into a body without damage. However, by tuning the accelerator they can make the protons stop inside of a tumor, thus killing cancer cells. Additionally, MRIs emerged from particle physics research, and can distinguish cancerous from non-cancerous tissue, as well as reveal blood flow and signs of stroke.
 
Intense light for research – Dedicated synchrotron accelerators allow scientists to control the intensity and wavelength of light for research that’s led to better batteries, greener energy, new high-performance materials, more effective drug treatments and a deeper understanding of nature.
 
Homeland security –  The same advanced detector technology (using high energy X-rays) that physicists use to analyze particles has also been used for practical scanning applications and security. Many ports are now turning to high-energy X-rays generated by particle accelerators to identify contraband and keep ports safe. 
 
Grid computing –  To deal with the computing demands of the LHC experiments, particle physicists have created the world’s largest Grid computing system, spanning more than 100 institutions in 36 countries and pushing the boundaries of global networking and distributed computing. Particle physicists developed the cutting-edge computing technology in this giant computer grid to record and analyze the unprecedented volumes of data generated in particle collisions, making key contributions to solutions at the frontiers of computer science.
 
Stage Three: The Practical
 
Advances in particle physics have also led to:
  • sturdy, heat-shrinkable film that Butterball turkeys—as well as fruits and vegetables, baked goods, board games and DVDs—come wrapped in.
  • the superabsorbent polymer material used in all modern-day diapers.
  • using beams of electrons from particle accelerators to make scratch- and stain-resistant furniture. 
  • a new material to make artificial heart valves. The treated surface of the material keeps the body from identifying the valve as an invader.
 
I think the LHC will allow science to enter a new era of physics and discovery. In the next decade many of the big physics questions might be answered and will lead to another list of new technologies. How many of these new technologies will lead to new products is as hard to predict today as it was in the 1930s when the first accelerators were built. In this time of deficit paranoia many government programs that can’t guarantee immediate results will be cut. It takes an understanding of how Stage 1 experiments in the LHC can lead to technologies that will eventually be invented. These might be technologies that your children or grandchildren will use in their manufacturing processes and products — so stay tuned.
 
Mike Collins is the author of the Growth Planning Handbook for SMMs. He can be reached on the web at www.mpcmgt.com.
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