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UK joins the world’s largest nuclear physics research facility

07 May 2013

Researchers across the UK will shortly have access to the most impressive and advanced nuclear physics research facility in the world.

The world’s most powerful nuclear microscope, the AGATA spectrometer
The world’s most powerful nuclear microscope, the AGATA spectrometer

The United Kingdom has officially become part of a €1.6bn international project that will become to nuclear physics what CERN is to particle physics.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has 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.

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.”

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

Professor Womersley went on to say: “The UK’s associate member status at FAIR will ensure that we play a leading role in the development of this ground-breaking international project, and that our researchers will have access to the latest, most advanced research facilities.

"STFC is the UK sponsor of nuclear physics and this milestone helps keep the UK science programme at the forefront internationally. 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.”

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 commence later this decade, fundamental research at FAIR is expected to make significant 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.

But as well as seeing the smallest things, researchers will also get to understand the biggest things, such as about supernovae of stars, and the elements that might exist for only a fraction of a second on their surface as they explode. Nuclear physicists dream of understanding the structure and synthesis of all nuclear species that are known to contribute to over 99% of the mass of the known universe.

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 four main large experiments, and the UK’s participation 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 state-of-the art 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.

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 the universe. It has very recently completed its first sets of experiments and can be moved and operated at different facilities across Europe.

FAIR will be funded 75 percent by Germany and 25 percent by other collaborating countries, including Russia and India, in addition to other European states. The new facility will play host to about 3,000 scientists from about 50 countries.

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