Imagine walking into an electronics big-box store and asking for a piece of equipment that lasts for a minimum of 10 years without any need for replacement or repair. Just for good measure, it also has to work in a highly radioactive environment and help world-class scientists examine the fundamental structure of the universe.
It’s the kind of request that would get a customer laughed out of the store. But in a university setting, when the customer is Jim Mueller – a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy – and the equipment is needed for an international collaboration that is revolutionizing particle physics, no is simply not an option.
Enter Joe Rabel, a design engineer in the electronics shop who has been creating electronics for the ATLAS experiment since 2000. The collaboration is based at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, and involves about 3,000 physicists from 38 countries. Among them are Mueller and two other members of the Pitt physics faculty.
“It’s a high level of collaboration,” says Mueller. “We sit down with what we think we need, and they then will tell us what we really need. It’s a lot of back and forth.”
The ATLAS experiment is perhaps most widely known for its discovery of the widely sought Higgs boson. The electronics built in Pitt’s shop are used in a 7,000-ton detector located in a cavern 100 meters below a Swiss suburb of Geneva.
Rabel, who build the original version of these electronics for the detector, and now is in the process of creating upgrades, which are scheduled for installation in 2019.Working alongside him is engineering technician George Zuk, and both men have been instrumental in the equipment’s design, according to Mueller.
“Making the boards is fairly complex,” says Rabel. “They want them to be 100 percent perfect, and they have to last 10 years … So far, everything’s been exactly what they wanted.”
The shop created six different prototypes of a small board measuring 1.1 inches by 3.6 inches, housing roughly 200 electronic parts each. The boards take sums of the signals from the detector, and also serve as a buffer and amplifier. When they go into production, about 2,500 boards will be produced from the designs created by Rabel and Zuk via an outside contractor whose work they will oversee.
“There’s a group of pretty smart guys here, working in the shop. There hasn’t been anything yet that we can’t do,” Rabel says, and then laughs: “I’m just a small cog in the big wheel.”