CERN particle accelerator equipment arrives in Melbourne


A system for developing and testing particle accelerators has arrived at the University from CERN in Switzerland. The MelBOX is now settling in.

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A system for developing and testing particle accelerators has arrived at the University from CERN in Switzerland. The MelBOX is now settling in.

The particle accelerator test system was sent from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. Dubbed the ‘MelBOX’, the new system is one of two X-BOX3 test systems at CERN. X-BOX3 is the third version of CERN’s high-frequency (X-band) test system. It was developed as part of the CLIC program to build a compact linear collider.

A research team led by Dr Suzie Sheehy will investigate how to use the MelBOX to make particle accelerators smaller, cheaper and more reliable.

Particle accelerators are used in high-energy particle colliders to find out what happens when subatomic particles hit each other. The same technology can be used to make miniature particle accelerators with industrial and medical applications. For example, they are used in X-ray scanning devices in ports and airports. And they are part of the equipment used in all radiotherapy treatments.

Red crane lifting a large box of a truck

The MelBOX, which weighs around 7 tonnes, was unloaded from two trucks by crane. Dr Sheehy has a crane operator license so that she can move equipment, but this time she and Dr Matteo Volpi supervised rigging company Millennium Rigging to do the job.

CERN sent the equipment as part of an agreement coordinated by Professor Geoffrey Taylor in 2019. This continues the University’s longstanding relationship with CERN. In 2010, the University entered into an agreement to take part in the CLIC program. Associate Professor Roger Rassool signed the agreement with CERN on behalf of the Australian Collaboration for Accelerator Science. This collaboration involves the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Australian Synchrotron.

Senior researcher Dr Matteo Volpi used the X-BOX3 in his research at CERN, where he was based for several years. With help from his CERN colleagues, he packed up the system – including the components, around 1 kilometre of cables, and the computer that controls the equipment. He even brought the keyboard and mouse, so he could replicate the original set-up as closely as possible.

The equipment left CERN in September 2020 and arrived at the University in January 2021. It was delivered to a laboratory in the basement of the David Caro Building, which houses the School of Physics. This area of the building is radiation-shielded by walls made of metre-thick concrete.

A winch lowering a box into a hole in the floor

Components that were too large or too heavy to be moved down the stairs or in the lift were lowered into the basement of the David Caro Building.

The lab space will be renovated to fit the MelBOX. This requires the research team to run detailed simulations to show that the concrete walls meet the standards of Australia’s radiation protection authorities.

Next, the team will test the hardware and software to ensure that nothing was damaged in transit.

Stack of boxes in an office

The MelBOX will be unpacked, installed and tested over the next few months.

They can then start conditioning the radiofrequency cavity. The cavity is where high-power radiofrequency waves generate extremely high electromagnetic fields. Subatomic particles are carried by these waves, gaining speed and energy. To prepare the cavity for this extreme environment, it must be conditioned. This is done by gradually increasing the energy field applied to the surface, monitoring its performance, and making adjustments as necessary. This process, which takes several months, ensures that the device can withstand the high energy fields used in normal operation.

The MelBOX is expected to be operational by the end of 2021.

A group of people posing on a landing dock

Banner image: CERN particle accelerator equipment arrives in Melbourne. Images by Matteo Volpi.

First published on 2 March 2021.

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