Europe's Nuclear Scientists Plan for the Future

European nuclear physicists released a long-range plan today that aims to cement their world-leading position in the field. The roughly 6000 nuclear scientists and engineers across the continent are already served by more than a dozen labs, but the twin top priorities of the Long Range Plan 2010, drawn up by the Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee (NuPECC), are the completion of two large facilities that will be completed this decade: the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR) at the GSI laboratory in Darmstadt, Germany, and SPIRAL2 at France's GANIL lab in Caen. SPIRAL2 already has its €300 million budget secure and is under construction, but in these times of austerity, researchers want to ensure that schedules are kept and budgets remain uncut. The €1.2 billion FAIR has 85% of its budget committed and will begin construction soon.

Nuclear physicists work with a wide array of techniques and energies ranging from a few kiloelectron-volts, used in astrophysical experiments examining nucleosynthesis in stars, up through nine orders of magnitude to teraelectron-volts, which is needed to create a quark-gluon plasma. FAIR will have a number of beamlines and detectors so that researchers can carry out many sorts of such nuclear experiments, but the principle technique used will be one called fragmentation. This involves researchers firing large, stable, high-energy nuclei at a thin target so that many unusual, unstable nuclei come spewing out the other side.

SPIRAL2 will complement FAIR by using an alternative method of generating unstable nuclei. In this technique, known as isotope separation online (ISOL), mid-energy nuclei hit a thick target and the radioactive isotopes produced are then ionized and reboosted by another accelerator ready for the experiment.

In its plan, NuPECC also urges funding agencies to support the upgrading of several existing facilities, including the ISOLDE experiment at CERN, SPES at Italy's Legnaro National Laboratory, the AGATA gamma-ray spectrometer that can be moved around and used at different labs, and to provide a new superconducting linear accelerator for stable beams at GSI for superheavy element research.

Further over the horizon, Europe's nuclear physicists are working up plans for next-generation facilities, such as a higher-intensity ISOL facility called EURISOL, two new colliders at FAIR for proton-antiproton experiments and electron-nucleon studies, and the ability to do high-energy electron-proton collisions at CERN.

Guenther Rosner of the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom and chair of NuPECC says that the committee felt a long-range plan was needed because big facilities have very long lead times, of approximately 10 years. "It's because they use cutting-edge technology that has never been tried before," he says. They are also a big funding commitment. "FAIR will be the largest nuclear physics facility in the world," Rosner says. As a result, "we need a solid scientific base before we go to governments asking for money."