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To paraphrase Dan Brown, sometimes to find truth one must build a particle accelerator. Indeed, we do not push human engineering genius to its limits just for fun. Particle accelerators came to life to help us gain as many insights as possible about the world we live in and to transform the collected data into information. Thus, the third blog post of our "Particle Accelerator Toolbox" series (read Part I and Part II) is all about the technologies that help us collect and process the data produced by particle accelerators and how they could be applied in industry.
It is estimated that the human brain's ability to store memories is equivalent to about 2.5 petabytes (PB) of binary data. CERN's experiences probing the fundamental nature of the universe create 1PB/sec. It seems doubtful that we could process (store, analyze and interpret) this amount of data without any help from technologies such as detector systems, data analytics and management, machine learning, and more. The solutions developed for particle accelerators and the expertise acquired are opening up new horizons for many industries – automotive, aerospace, energy, finances, and even agriculture – and helping transform more and more data into relevant information.
Hide-and-seek with data
In simple words, particle accelerators produce a beam of charged particles that is shot at a target (another beam circulating in the opposite direction or a sample). When two beams collide, they produce massive particles, such as the Higgs boson or the top quark. By measuring their properties, scientists increase our understanding of matter. When the beam is shot at a sample, it acts like a super-powerful flashlight, illuminating the sample for a brief moment, thus revealing its structure. However, in both cases, the most challenging part is to capture all the information delivered by the experiment. This is where detector technologies come into play.
It is the same in industry. The field of medical imaging is unthinkable without detector technologies. So is the security sector, where it is used to detect concealed threats in baggage and cargo. It is also essential for Laue diffraction, a method mostly used by aerospace manufacturers for turbine inspection. The technology could also be a key advantage in the field of cultural heritage inspection, radioactive waste monitoring, cleantech, and even agriculture. The better the detector, the more reliable and complete the obtained information is.
Research institutions operating particle accelerators, such as CERN or the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, possess unique expertise in the design, testing, and development of high-resolution and extreme radiation-tolerant detectors integrated into complex systems. The adaptation of these technologies by industry can result in groundbreaking products, like the color medical scanner, developed by MARS Bioimaging Ltd based on Medipix3 technology developed at CERN.
A challenge of storing and managing data
Catching all the possible data is an advantage. But it can turn into a curse if this data is not managed and stored properly. Having to deal with 256 PB of highly distributed data (which loosely translates into 3.5 billion data files accessible worldwide), CERN relies on robust, cost-effective, very large data management and storage solutions, such as highly scalable cloud storage engine or File Transfer Services (FTS). Not only high-energy physics can benefit from these developments. Pharmaceutical companies implement CERN's VM File System to distribute applications and libraries between scientists in their laboratories worldwide. This improves the access speed by up to 30 times. Such data storage and management technologies can also advance the rise of decentralized energy generation and make personalized medicine a reality. Not to mention the benefit for the industrial development of data centers and cloud solutions.
Store at 18°C
Speaking of data centers. Essentially, there are a number of servers in one room and – like any other hardware – a server needs to be maintained and operated under optimal conditions. This includes temperature and humidity monitoring. The expertise coming from the particle accelerator facilities can make this task easier. For example, CERN has developed ultra-thin microchannel cooling plates to provide stable and precisely control thermal management and other solutions.
Making sense out of all this data
Finally, data is nothing more than raw material. It needs to be analyzed before any conclusions can be drawn. The expertise from particle accelerator facilities can help with that, too. The ability to analyze extremely large sets of structured data is a cornerstone for the future of the financial and insurance sector, genomic data, logistics and transportation, cybersecurity, energy, food safety, and more. In aviation, for example, the data-analysis framework could increase safety. SAFETYN SaS is using CERN's ROOT framework to develop a novel device that acts as the pilot’s guardian angel, collecting data and assisting the pilots in improving their situational awareness during a flight.
Machine learning (ML) goes hand-in-hand with data analytics and is just as much an important part of the research for particle accelerators. In fact, particle physicists were among the first to use ML in software for analysis and simulations. As a result of this integration, training neural networks were developed capable of searching for exceptional data points or events, classifying events, images or datasets, and very quickly selecting and filtering data information. This expertise could allow for better predictions and simulations in healthcare, self-driving cars, robotics for industry and agriculture, machine translation, chatbots, and even search engines. CERN's fast neural network interface in FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays, semiconductor devices that are based around a matrix of configurable logic blocks connected via programmable interconnects) is already being used in SIRI.
Brave new world of accelerator technologies
The few examples and technologies mentioned in this overview do not cover the entire spectrum of what accelerator and related technologies could offer to industry. We would need extremely large data analytics to find out about all the existing applications, and machine learning to be able to predict the new ones. To learn more about particle accelerators and the role they play in industrial and scientific development, stay tuned for news from the Swiss BIC of CERN Technologies and PARK INNOVAARE.
To facilitate access to this expertise and to encourage industry to use the solutions developed at research centers such as CERN and the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI in Switzerland, an entrepreneurship program – the Swiss Business Incubation Centre BIC of CERN Technologies – was launched in 2018. Its two-year incubation program provides technical support for project development, business coaching, and CHF 50,000 seed money. For more updates about Swiss BIC of CERN Technologies program 2020, please contact Dr. Francesco Colonna at email@example.com.