May 9, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 15

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    Electronics Development Group arms physicists with complex circuitry to process flood of data from collider

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Part of the Chicago team that helped build key electronic components for the Collider Detector at Femilab experiment are (left to right) Un-Ki Yang, Research Associate in the Enrico Fermi Institute; Harold Sanders, Senior Research Associate in the Enrico Fermi Institute and Head of the Electronics Development Group; Jeffrey Berryhill, doctoral student in physics; and Mircea Bogdan, Electronics Engineer in the Enrico Fermi Institute.

    When the Large Hadron Collider begins operating in 2006 at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics in Geneva, Switzerland, it will produce one billion proton-proton collisions each second.

    University physicists who will participate in an experiment at CERN, known as A Toroidal Large Hadron Collider Apparatus, or ATLAS, expect the new collider to help them answer the most pressing questions in particle physics today. But first, they and a team of Chicago engineers must finish developing 14,000 circuit boards, which will help collect the enormous quantity of data that will flow from the ATLAS particle detector.

    The circuit boards will perform the technically difficult task of converting signals from analog to digital format so that computers can process the data flood.

    “We’re fortunate at Chicago to have a very strong electronics group, a group of very skilled engineers who have experience from preparing electronics on previous high-energy physics experiments,” said James Pilcher, Director of the Enrico Fermi Institute and member of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN. “They are applying that expertise to building a really state-of-the-art system for ATLAS.”

    Harold Sanders, Senior Research Associate in the Enrico Fermi Institute and Head of the Electronics Development Group, leads a six-member group of electronics engineers. Last year, another set of vital electronic components built by Sanders’ group went into action at the Collider Detector at Fermilab experiment, another international particle physics collaboration in which Chicago scientists participate.

    “We try to build any special equipment that these physicists need for these very complicated experiments,” Sanders said.

    Part of the University’s contribution to the CDF hardware recently received first prize in the university category of the Mentor Graphics 2002 Printed Circuit Board Technology Leadership Award.

    A panel of industry judges evaluated competition entries for innovation, complexity, physical design and aesthetics. Those receiving the award were electronics engineer Mircea Bogdan and research scientist William Ashmanskas for the CDF Drift Chamber Signal Analyzer Board.

    “This is a tool for helping us to understand the instruments that we use to study fundamental particles,” Ashmanskas said.

    Physicists at CERN will employ a different set of Chicago-built components in their search for previously unobserved phenomena. These phenomena include the Higgs boson––assuming that scientists working at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory do not discover it first––and super symmetric particles.

    “The Higgs boson plays an essential role in creating the masses of elementary particles and hence of all matter in the universe, including you and me,” said Pilcher. “We have theoretical predictions that rely on it and agree with observations to astounding precision.”

    Despite many attempts, the Higgs boson has never been seen directly. “All we have are its footprints. However, the ATLAS experiment should change all that. For the first time we will have the ability to explore its whole habitat,” added Pilcher.

    Super symmetric particles are the theoretical, mirror counterparts to the particles that physicists have already observed. “Adding this new class of particles would cure a lot of unpleasant things in existing theories,” said Mark Oreglia, Professor in Physics and the College. Among these problems: why gravity is so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces operating in the universe.

    If ATLAS physicists learn the answers to these questions, it will be in part because of the data-acquisition circuitry provided by the University’s scientists and engineers. The 14,000 circuit boards will come in seven varieties. Sanders and his staff rigorously test each variety before sending it into production.

    “We have a simulator that simulates everything going on inside one of these boards. The rule is that if it doesn’t work in the simulator, we don’t build it,” Sanders said. “I don’t like to build what I call a breadboard.”

    The electronics engineers have at their disposal a large array of software tools that did not exist 10 years ago.

    “We learn every day,” Bogdan said. “We learn new tools, new procedures, new technologies. We have to train constantly, not to improve, but in order to keep up.”

    Sanders has kept the pace at Chicago for 23 years, following seven years at Princeton University and another seven at Rutgers University.

    “I thought I’d come here for seven years, but I love the culture here,” Sanders said. “I’m hooked on this place.”