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Education & Knowledge

Fascinating Big Science

Germany offers outstanding infrastructure for research using major instrumentation – from X-ray radiation sources to particle accelerators.
Faszinierende Großforschung
© dpa

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 particle accelerators or nuclear fusion plants are needed for research into 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 primarily by the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in the country.

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 in Greifswald, a nuclear fusion technology research facility run by the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, which is affiliated with the Helmholtz Association. The aim of fusion research is to develop a climate and environmentally friendly power plant that generates energy by fusing atomic nuclei.

Open to international researchers

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. The major instrumentation thus 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 work in its six research fields. The Earth and Environment section includes the German research fleet, with its jewel “Sonne”, an internationally outstanding research ship. 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 more than 50 institutes nationwide. The DLR played 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 researchers 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. A dozen countries are involved in the X-ray laser XFEL, which is the biggest worldwide.

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, supplying around 20 percent. The largest particle accelerator, measuring 27 kilometres, is in operation at CERN. Around 1,300 scientists from Germany are involved in CERN experiments. Germany is also one of the partners involved in the construction, currently underway, of the ITER nuclear fusion reactor in Cadarache, southern France, and is thus supporting the global search for an environmentally friendly energy source.

Germany is likewise a partner of the European Spallation Source ESS: In the Swedish town of Lund, work with neutrons is reaching an unprecedented dimension and intensity. Alongside its scientific involvement, Germany is also a key source of funding for the project and also includes a major group of users who are reliant on its research into neurons, for example for discoveries of material properties in medicine, environmental research, energy supply or materials testing.

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, while the ESRF is the world’s most intense X-ray source.

Views of the universe

Germany is involved with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the leading European organisation for astronomical research, together with 16 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).

Not far from the satellite control centre of the European Space Agency ESA in Darmstadt, the international accelerator facility FAIR is currently under construction. It is set to go into operation in 2025 and is one of the largest global projects on fundamental physical research. 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 50 countries.