New Fermilab accelerator to further efforts to understand the universe

The ongoing attempt to fully understand our universe - how it started, what it's made of, why it sticks together - is getting a new tool: a powerful linear particle accelerator at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.

Officials on Friday broke ground for the Proton Improvement Project-II, which officials said will power cutting-edge physics experiments for decades.

Scientists from around the world will use the accelerator to study neutrino particles, which laboratory Director Nigel Lockyer called "ubiquitous."

"There are more of them than anything else," he said of the particles. "We know the least about them."

The accelerator will be the new first stage in the laboratory's chain of accelerators and will provide more powerful, more luminous particle beams for the laboratory's flagship project, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.

Protons will be accelerated for several experiments. Some of the protons will hit an object, generating a type, or flavor, of neutrino that will be directed to a liquid argon detector a mile underground in a former mine in South Dakota.

The journey will take about 4 milliseconds. During it, scientists believe the particles will change flavor and then change back.

Neutrinos are everywhere, generally sent by the sun. In just a few seconds, about 300 million can pass through a space as small as a fingernail. They don't seem to interact much with other particles and weigh a lot less than others.

Scientists hope studying how they change will explain why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe. Under the principle of symmetry, there should be equal amounts of matter and antimatter, annihilating each other and leaving nothing but light.

PIP-II is also a big deal on a more pedestrian level: It will be the first accelerator project built in the United States with significant contributions from international partners. India, France and the United Kingdom have already signed on, and an agreement is being worked on with Poland.

"The importance of these relationships to achieving great large-scale science cannot be underestimated," University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer said.

Consuls general from those countries spoke at Friday's ceremony, with British Consul General John Saville, the son of a physicist, saying they were "celebrating that shared human curiosity" about the universe.

Neeta Bhushan, consul general of India, noted that superconducting components will be built in India, aiding its own research and industrial capabilities.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, and Reps. Robin Kelly, Lauren Underwood, Sean Casten and Bill Foster, a former Fermilab scientist, spoke.

Many talked about the tangential benefits of building the accelerator, as technology developed for it may prove useful in commerce, industry and medicine. The laboratory estimates that the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility under construction will have an economic impact of about $1.2 billion for Illinois.

But Casten reminded them of the new accelerator's first priority: "Research for research's sake is cool!" he said.

The accelerator will replace the laboratory's 50-year-old linear accelerator.

A final cost estimate for PIP-II will be finished later this year. A 2015 report by a committee working on the project estimated the cost near $600 million, but that included a 40 percent contingency.

If there are no delays, the new accelerator could begin work by 2026, according to Andre Salles, a spokesman for the laboratory.

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  Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, has his picture taken from a lift with many other attendees after a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for a new accelerator at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. Brian Hill/
  Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, talks to Lia Merminga, PIP-II project director, and Consul General of India in Chicago Neeta Bhushan on Friday during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new particle accelerator at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. Brian Hill/
  Lia Merminga, PIP-II project director, speaks Friday during a groundbreaking ceremony at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia for a new linear proton accelerator, called PIP-II. Brian Hill/
  Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Director Nigel Lockyer speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new linear proton accelerator, called PIP-II. Brian Hill/
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