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York Scientists to Join World's Largest Nuclear Research Project

University of York

12:05am 3rd May 2013

Researchers the University of York will have access to the most impressive and advanced nuclear physics research facility in the world as the United Kingdom today becomes part of a €1.6 billion* international project that will be to nuclear physics what CERN is to particle physics.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) today (3 May 2013) signed an agreement that makes the UK an associate member of FAIR (Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research) currently under construction next to the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, in Darmstadt, Germany.

The Department of Physics at York is part of the NUSTAR (NUclear STructure, Astrophysics and Reactions) consortium of UK universities that will contribute to one of the four main experiments at FAIR.

York's nuclear physics group has an international reputation in the study of "exotic" nuclei -- particular nuclei in atoms which do not exist in nature -- which are highly unstable and so difficult to study. Researchers in the Department of Physics develop these exotic nuclei in the laboratory using beams of other exotic nuclei.  FAIR will be the world’s largest facility for exotic beams of nuclei. 

Membership of FAIR also creates an opportunity for UK nuclear physics scientists to work at the cutting edge in the development of innovative applications. These include new techniques for cancer therapy; in the study of the high-radiation conditions in space which will be taken into account in future manned space missions; and in the development of nuclear-fusion energy as a long-term solution to dealing with climate change.

Professor Mike Bentley, who leads the York research team, said: We are very excited about the possibilities that FAIR will give us for studying the properties of one of the most fundamental forces in nature -- the nuclear force -- and helping to understand the origins of some of the elements in our universe. 

“We have a £1 million project to develop some of the key detectors necessary for the very challenging measurements which will take place at NUSTAR. York is playing a leading role in developing detectors capable of measuring the time that events occur to an incredible accuracy of a few pico-seconds -- if one second is the circumference of the Earth, one pico second is less than a tenth of a millimetre in comparison.”

Nuclear physics research is already responsible for a host of world changing applications across many areas of our lives, such as providing the technology behind MRI scanners in hospitals, in the early detection of brain tumours and cancer therapy, as well as in anti-terrorism security applications. 

With first experiments on track to start later this decade, fundamental research at FAIR will make huge strides towards our understanding of the universe. It will reveal findings about so far unknown states of matter and still missing information about the creation of the universe 13.8 billion years ago. Researchers will also study celestial phenomena such as supernovae and the elements that might exist for only a fraction of a second on their surface as they explode.

Once complete, FAIR will have a high energy and high intensity accelerator complex, with several storage rings and 3.5km of beam-lines, and will provide antiproton and ion beams with unprecedented intensity and quality.

FAIR will consist of 4 main large experiments, and the UK’s participation at FAIR is predominantly through its £10M contribution to the construction of one of these - NUSTAR (NUclear STructure, Astrophysics and Reactions).  It is also in recognition of the input the UK is making to projects at FAIR and its science programme.

NUSTAR is responsible for the production of instrumentation to create and study the decays of the extraordinarily rare nuclear species that will be created at FAIR. As part of NUSTAR, the UK has already made major contributions to the world’s most powerful nuclear microscope, the AGATA spectrometer, a thousand times more sensitive than any previous detector of its kind built. Developed by STFC’s Nuclear Physics Group and a group of six UK Universities funded by STFC, AGATA is designed to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe.  It has very recently completed its first sets of experiments and can be moved and operated at different facilities across Europe. The exciting potential of this spectrometer led to the creation of the international AGATA collaboration of 12 European countries involving 40 institutions.

Professor John Womersley, Chief Executive at STFC, said: “The advances in technology that will result from our scientists’ work on this hugely challenging project will be a real asset to the UK in terms of economic and societal benefits. FAIR will be the world’s most important nuclear physics research facility for many years to come making this a very exciting time to be involved in this area of research.  It will most certainly provide vital inspiration for our young nuclear physicists and engineers of the future.”

FAIR will be funded 75 per cent by Germany and 25 per cent by other collaborating countries, including Russia and India, in addition to other European states. The new facility, where various physics programs can be operated in parallel, will offer outstanding research opportunities and discovery potential for about 3000 scientists from about 50 countries. 

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