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The future of Fermilab

In newly constructed NOvA Detector Hall 330 feet underground Fermilab BataviUnderground Coordinator Bill Lee explains how scientists engineers will assemble

In the newly constructed NOvA Detector Hall, 330 feet underground at Fermilab in Batavia, Underground Coordinator Bill Lee explains how scientists and engineers will assemble the "Near Detector" in the hall this summer on Thursday, May 23, 2013. A second NOvA detector, called the "Far Detector" is under construction in northern Minneasota. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 25, 2013 7:37PM

In science, answers bring more questions. That’s how it’s been for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, especially since the Tevatron particle collider was turned on in 1985.

The Tevatron produced the first proton-antiproton collisions, paved the way for about 1,000 doctorates, produced about a paper a week through its experiments and led to the discovery of the top quark before it was shut down due to lack of funding in October 2011.

Some thought that the end of the Tevatron, replaced as the world’s largest particle collider by the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, would mean the end, too, for Fermilab.

“There are many things we still don’t understand,” says Pier Oddone, Fermilab’s director. “We have such huge mysteries left.”

Some of those mysteries that Fermilab is engaged in solving include: discovering the role neutrinos played in the formation of the universe; analyzing the muon, an unstable subatomic particle; defining dark energy; and learning the nature of dark matter, which, Oddone says, “makes up most of the universe, but we have no idea what it is.”

Though Fermilab no longer can create the most powerful particle collisions, it can continue with important high-energy physics research with a higher intensity beam than CERN, supporters say.

“Fermilab is undergoing a transition,” says U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a scientist who once worked at the laboratory. “It’s a much more broad-based program.”

Fermilab is funded by the federal Department of Energy’s high-energy physics budget. It’s the country’s only particle physics lab, so it gets most of the money set aside for that work. But its budget is under constant scrutiny, competing for funding with more immediately practical science. There’s been a $36 million cut in the government’s high-energy physics funding for the budget year 2014.

Oddone has proposed keeping most of Fermilab fully funded by delaying planned funding for a long base neutrino experiment that would shoot neutrinos to South Dakota.

The lab was expecting $30 million in this next year for research and development funding for the long base experiment, but it appears it could get as little as $10 million.

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) is fighting to restore funding. He has said he is “disappointed” with President Barack Obama’s administration’s commitment to discovery science.

“I think the president likes to give great speeches about science, but I don’t think he really understands the importance of pure discovery research,” Hultgren said.

Foster said he is “very optimistic” high-energy research funding will be restored.

Beside the experiments coming in the next 10 years, Fermilab officials also are planning ahead about 20 years with Project X, a muon experiment that would use the old Tevatron. The lab has received a partial go-ahead on early stages of that project, according to Oddone.

While there have been cutbacks on experiments, the Department of Energy has budgeted a $35 million infrastructure project for Fermilab, which will repair and restore many of the tunnels, substations, cooling areas and electronics needed to keep the lab running.

Fermilab also is building a research center that will house high-tech companies looking for practical offshoots of the science being done at the lab.

In the past, its work has helped lead to proton cancer treatment and development of the magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

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