If you can read this right now, it is thanks to the World Wide Web, a product of basic research done at CERN. The web was invented at CERN to provide a communication tool for high-energy physicists working on different continents. Its impact on society has been tremendous, changing forever the way we communicate and even the way we live.
But the web would have remained an internal product without “knowledge transfer”, a process that aims at finding applications for developments coming from basic research to other fields. CERN’s Knowledge Transfer group tries to multiply such examples and its work is an integral part of CERN’s mission.
The lab’s primary goal is to conduct scientific research to develop knowledge on the nature of matter and better understand the Universe we live in. But in the process of achieving this, we are constantly pushing technology beyond its current limits, developing ever more highly performing tools. In this day and age, this also means trying to do it in a cost and resource effective way, respectful of the environment.
Every time a new detector or a new accelerator is built, we must design the components that will allow us to do better than last time. We either do it ourselves in the hundred of universities and institutes associated with CERN, or we work with industrial partners to develop pieces of equipment that will meet these challenging requirements: faster electronics, lighter materials, better cooling or smarter algorithms.
Procurement of novel equipment is one of the ways CERN drives technological development, promoting innovation within companies from CERN Member States. Another way is through scientists who have developed new ideas thinking of practical applications outside high-energy physics. CERN inventors can then benefit from the support of the Knowledge Transfer group. The team advises on every aspect related to technology transfer and intellectual property management, and provides expertise in multidisciplinary activities relevant to life sciences applications.
The Knowledge Transfer group first needs to establish if the new concept is unique then seeks potential external partners who could further develop and market the idea. Of course, when dealing with the business world, CERN must use business world rules. Guaranteeing exclusivity and an economic return is usually what interests business partners so agreements are drafted where CERN gives licenses to regulate the commercial exploitation of the technology.
Unlike with the World Wide Web, where no patent was taken to ensure wide access to everybody free of charge, patents are sometimes requested for new technologies as a means to attract commercial partners. For some technologies, this is the only way to attract industry and bring technologies to the market. A third of the generated income is reinvested in a Knowledge Transfer Fund to develop new projects, while the remaining two thirds go to CERN’s technical and scientific departments.
Sometimes the partner is another research institute. This is the case right now with CIEMAT, the Spanish Science and Technology funding agency, who entered a partnership with CERN to develop particle accelerators called “cyclotrons” to produce micro doses of radioisotopes needed for medical imaging.
Radioisotopes are short-lived and need to be produced at or near the medical centre. This cyclotron must therefore be small enough to fit within any hospital making the production of single-patient doses possible.
An important part of CERN Knowledge Transfer is the active promotion of multidisciplinary activities in the field of life sciences. CERN is involved in various projects connected to medical imaging, particle therapy, radiobiology, e-health and training of young researchers in these multidisciplinary fields.
Applications to medical imaging are one of the most obvious spin-offs since CERN’s detectors are essentially high-tech cameras capable of catching what is invisible to the eye. Being good at taking pictures of extremely furtive events, physicists can export their skills to improve medical imaging devices.
CERN also supported the development of highly efficient solar panels to produce hot water for heating and cooling purposes. These devices consist essentially of a water circuit placed in front of cylindrical mirrors to catch even diffuse light. The pipes are contained within a vacuum-sealed panel, eliminating heat losses since the vacuum acts like an insulator, rather like in a thermos. CERN’s special touch here is the introduction in the collector of a “getter pump”, a device based on materials and thin-film coating technologies developed to improve the vacuum quality (over long periods of time) in accelerator beam pipes by catching residual gas molecules. The Geneva International Airport is in the process of equipping its roof with roughly 300 such panels that will ensure heating of the airport’s main building.
One of the best and long term means of knowledge transfer is through teachers. Every year, CERN welcomes over a thousand high school teachers who get the opportunity to meet CERN’s scientists, visit different experiments and laboratories and hopefully later on, share how exciting basic research can be with hundreds of their students in the years to follow.
Knowledge Transfer is thriving at CERN and will continue to promote initiatives to maximize the benefits of basic research to different sectors of society and drive innovation.
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