Fascinating Big Science

The German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg is among the leading facilities worldwide for particle acceleration
The German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg is among the leading facilities worldwide for particle acceleration Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa
Germany offers scientists outstanding infrastructure for research using major instrumentation – from high-performance computers to particle accelerators. Moreover, German research is active in many international Big Science projects.

Research using major instrumentation plays a key role in the German academic landscape. This applies both to fundamental research and to realising knowledge gained in innovative solutions. Highly complex facilities such as high-performance computers and particle accelerators are needed to research the tiniest structures of matter as well as to resolve global issues relating to the climate, environment or alternative energies. In Germany Big Science facilities are operated by the state Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in the country.

Open to international scientists

The Helmholtz Centres cooperate closely with universities and non-university research facilities, such as the institutes of the Max Planck Society, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and Leibniz Association, and with industry. One outstanding example of this type of cooperation is the experimental facility Wendelstein 7-X, a nuclear fusion technology research facility run by the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, which is affiliated with the Helmholtz Association. Doctoral students and scientists – including from abroad – can register for the experiment stations at the facilities, some of which are unique worldwide, at the Helmholtz Centres. As such, the major instrumentation serves not only fundamental and applied research, but also scientific exchange. More than 7,000 international visiting scientists come to the Helmholtz Centres every year.

The facilities and institutes of the Helmholtz Association are as diverse as the research work in its six research fields. The Earth and Environment section includes the German research fleet, with its jewel “Sonne”, the most cutting-edge research ship in the world. The researchers on board the floating laboratory focus above all on topics relating to climate change and protecting marine ecosystems. At measuring stations and lab units such as the polar Neumayer-Station III in the Antarctic and the Modular Earth Science Infrastructure (MESI) at the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam research work concentrates primarily on the complexity of the Earth’s systems. The researchers seek to gain a better understanding of climatic and geological changes and set about developing concepts that provide protection from earthquakes or tsunamis.

Cosmos and microcosm

The leading organisation in the major research field Aeronautics, Space and Transport is the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, with 33 institutes. The DLR has a major role in the “Rosetta” mission of the European Space Agency (ESA). It was responsible for building the lander Philae and the control centre that monitored the first landing on a comet in 2014. The DLR’s numerous infrastructures also include wind tunnels for testing aeroplane models in near-real conditions and research aircraft such as HALO, which is active in atmospheric research.

By way of contrast, it is the diversity of the microcosm that scientists are exploring at the renowned German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, one of the world’s leading particle acceleration facilities. Researchers use major instrumentation at the DESY to investigate the interplay between tiny elementary particles or how new nanomaterials behave. The PETRA III accelerator on the DESY campus is considered the brightest storage-ring-based X-ray radiation source in the world. As of 2017 the European X-ray laser XFEL will generate the most intense X-ray flashes of all time.

Simulations with high-performance computers are crucial for many learning processes. One of the computers enabling scientists to push the boundaries is JUQUEEN at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Europe’s first supercomputer has a maximum computing power of 5.9 petaflops – which corresponds to almost six quadrillion floating-point operations per second. It is needed, for example, for work on the Human Brain Project. This ambitious European Union research project aims to pool all existing knowledge on the human brain and to reproduce it with computer-based simulations. Its site at the state Forschungszentrum Jülich is another top address in German fundamental research and one of the largest research centres in Europe. Its approximately 5,800 staff members conduct research on topics from physics and IT, as well as health, “Information and Brain Research” and “Energy and Environment” in an interdisciplinary context.

International perspectives

On an international level Germany is involved in various Big Science projects. It is the largest contributor to the budget of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, supplying around 20 percent. The largest particle accelerator, measuring 27 kilometres, is in operation at CERN. More than 1,000 researchers from Germany are involved in CERN experiments.

Furthermore, Germany is significantly involved with the two Big Science facilities based in Grenoble, the ILL (Institut Laue-Langevin) with its high-flux reactor and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). The ILL is considered an outstanding global centre for neutron research. The ESRF is the world’s most intense X-ray source.

Germany is involved with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the leading European organisation for astronomical research, together with 15 other countries. The ESO telescopes are located at three sites in the Atacama Desert in Chile. From here, objects in the distant reaches of the universe are studied.

Germany is moreover the most important European partner of the International Space Station (ISS). As the largest contributor Germany finances some 40 percent of the ESA programme on the operation of the ISS and as such makes a crucial contribution to the scientific use of the space station. The DLR coordinates the German contributions. As a member of the ESA, Germany also has a role in the ExoMars programme. The first mission of the European-Russian cooperation launched in March 2016 and sent a research satellite and landing demonstrator module on their way to Mars. A rover will then be delivered to the planet in 2018. Among other things, the project is to investigate the surface of Mars for signs of life.

Looking ahead

The multilateral research centre “Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East” (SESAME) in Jordan is scheduled to go into operation in late 2016. It is to use a third-generation synchrotron light source to break down atomic details and discover non-visible structures. An electron storage ring provided free of charge by Germany in 2007 constituted the foundation stone for the construction, initiated by UNESCO, of the facility. 

The European free electron laser XFEL has been under construction in Hamburg since 2009 and is scheduled to go operational in 2017. With its ultra-short laser flashes in the X-ray range it offers scientists worldwide unique research opportunities. The X-ray flashes can be employed, for instance, in decoding the atomic details of viruses and cells as well as taking three-dimensional pictures from the nanocosmos. Germany has the largest stake in the international project and manages the construction and operation of the facility.

The international accelerator facility FAIR is currently under construction in Darmstadt and is planned to go into operation as of 2022. It is one of the largest global projects on fundamental physical research; ten countries are involved. With the aid of high-intensity antiproton and ion radiation scientists aim to research in more detail the structure of matter and the origin of the universe. The facility envisages capacity for some 3,000 researchers from all over the world.