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Article updated: 7/25/2013 1:01 PM

Fermilab's giant magnet headed near Glen Ellyn today

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Searching for teeny-tiny particles that may exist for the briefest of times in a vacuum requires really big tools.

Shoppers and others at the Bolingbrook Costco gawked Wednesday at one, as a circular, 50-foot-wide electromagnet stopped there en route from a federal laboratory in New York to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.

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Magnet on the move

Today: At the Costco store, 830 E. Boughton Road, Bolingbrook. At 11:30 p.m. it heads north on I-355 to Butterfield Road, then west to Route 53.
Thursday: 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. it is at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, southeast corner of Butterfield Road and Route 53, near Glen Ellyn. At 11 p.m. magnet heads south on Route 53 to I-88, west to Route 59, north to Ferry Road, west to Eola Road, and north to Fermilab.
Friday: 5:30 p.m. public reception at Fermilab. Enter at Pine Street and Kirk Road.
Source: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

"That's amazing," said Sandy Ros, who is moving to the area and staying with relatives in Downers Grove.

Another observer, Sue Dunn of Woodridge, said she has had a longtime fascination with Fermilab.

"When I took my son out to Fermilab when I was home-schooling him, I learned about the quark," she said, noting that her son now is a lieutenant in the Air Force. Dunn and husband Rich were trying hard to grasp the notion that the magnet involves studying particles that have mass but don't take up space.

The concept was explained to them by Tasha Arvanitis of Hinsdale, an undergrad at Harvey Mudd College who is working on the project with Fermilab.

Moving the magnet is the government's way of being thrifty by repurposing something. The cost of the monthlong move of the magnet by barge and truck is about $3.5 million; to build one from scratch would cost 10 times that amount.

The 17-ton ring will be the centerpiece of a new Muon g-2 experiment at Fermilab. Muons are considered "siblings" to electrons, and with the superconducting magnet, scientists will study muons' magnetic strength and rate of gyration. Further complicating the study is that muons exist for only about 2.2 millionths of a second.

It is part of work on the intensity frontier of physics.

The ring was built in the 1990s at Brookhaven National Laboratory for a similar experiment that ended in 2001. Fermilab will take up where that left off, using a "cleaner" beam of muons and better proton power, Arvanitis said.

"It's exciting to have this here," she said.

"I tried to to tell them what Fermilab does," said Mark Barowsky of Woodridge, who brought daughters Alicen and Natalie to see the magnet. They have been tracking its progress for a few weeks. Barowsky hoped the visit would show Alicen the potential in her aptitude in mathematics. "She's pretty good at math," but doesn't really like it, he said.

Moving something this big, but delicate, has been quite the undertaking. The magnet's weight is the equivalent of about 7 Ford Explorers. Its three aluminum rings contain superconducting coils. It can't be taken apart. It can't be twisted more than a few degrees -- less than a quarter-inch horizontally and one-10th of an inch vertically -- without irreparably damaging the coils.

It floated by barge down the East Coast, around Florida, through the Gulf of Mexico, then up rivers to Lemont.

This week, it is traveling by truck. Because it's poking along at 5 to 15 mph, and because some signs will have to be removed so it can pass, travel occurs late at night to minimize disruption to traffic. It will enter the tollways via off-ramps.

Even at those slow speeds, the trip is fraught with excitement. For instance, Fermilab officials figure they'll have about 6 inches of clearance on either side for the delicate magnet when it passes through the open-road portion of the Boughton Road toll plaza on I-355.

Fermilab is celebrating the arrival with a public reception at 5:30 p.m. at Wilson Hall.

"A 50-foot-wide electromagnet rolling down a road is really something to see," said David Hertzog of the University of Washington, co-spokesman for the Muon g-2 experiment. "As excited as we are about the new physics this experiment may uncover, we're equally thrilled to see the magnet making its last few steps home."

Details of the Fermilab celebration are posted on http://muon-g-2.fnal.gov/bigmove. Check for updates, especially because rain could delay festivities. For more information, call the Office of Communication at (630) 840-3351.

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