U of C wins share of Fermilab

By Frank Lin

The University will partially control the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, considered one of the world’s most prominent research laboratories, the U.S. Department of Energy announced last Wednesday.

Under a five-year contract with the Department of Energy worth over $1.5 billion, the Fermi Research Alliance, LLC, will manage and operate the high-energy physics laboratory starting January 1, 2007. The Fermi Research Alliance (FRA) consists of the University of Chicago and the Universities Research Association, a consortium of 90 leading research universities, of which the U of C is a member.

“As members of the University of Chicago community, we all can be proud that we will now play an important new role in continuing Fermilab’s rich history of scientific and technological discovery for the benefit of the nation for many years to come,” said U of C President and FRA Chairman Robert Zimmer in a University-wide e-mail last Wednesday.

The FRA was established in 2006 to “provide single point accountability and oversight,” according to the FRA’s official website.

“We wanted to improve the cooperation and synergy between research institutions managing the Fermilab,” said Kurt Riesselmann, a spokesman for Fermilab, in a phone interview.

“The University of Chicago already manages the Argonne National Laboratory, and the Fermilab conducts a lot of research in conjunction with Argonne,” he said. “The Fermilab also works with many universities in Illinois, so there are many opportunities for research cooperation within Illinois.”

The five-year contract can be extended 20 more years if the current management proves successful.

“When the time came for the Department of Energy to field bids for the new Fermilab contract, the previous management company, the Universities Research Association, looked for partners to strengthen the research team,” Riesselmann said.

“The U of C can benefit significantly from managing Fermilab,” said Michael S. Turner, chair of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University.

“The field of particle physics is poised for a revolution in our understanding of matter, energy, space, and time as well as the origin and evolution of the universe, and the future of Fermilab is central to realizing these dreams,” Turner said.

The Fermilab is located in Batavia, Ill., a town 40 miles west of Chicago. The lab is named after Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist whose work at the University ultimately led to the creation of the first nuclear reactor. The laboratory is home to the Tevatron, the highest energy particle accelerator in the world.

“We are conducting research in areas of particle physics, particle astrophysics, and neutrino physics,” Riesselmann said. “We’re learning more about the universe: the beginnings, where we came from, where the universe will go, and what the future of the universe holds.”

Riesselmann said research conducted at Fermilab has a serious impact on the field of physics.

“Unlike astronomers, who rely heavily on telescopes, we can create in our laboratories conditions similar to the conditions when the universe was first created,” Riesselmann said. “There are a lot of interesting questions at the moment: We are only 5 percent sure of the matter and energy content of the universe. There’s much more matter and energy, known as dark matter and dark energy, that we are trying to study—not only Fermilab researchers but researchers all around the world.”

The latest deal puts the University in control of both Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, making the U of C one of two universities, along with the University of California, to operate two national laboratories, Zimmer said in the e-mail.

“As manager of both Argonne and Fermilab, with combined annual budgets of nearly $800 million, the University is uniquely positioned to create new synergies between itself, Fermilab, Argonne, and partner institutions in astrophysics, particle physics, computing, and accelerator science,” Zimmer said in the e-mail.