University seed grants spur collaboration with Argonne and Fermilab, spark DOE support

Lisa La Vallee
Director of CommunicationsOffice of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories

During the past 13 years, the University of Chicago has awarded more than $8 million in collaborative seed grants (current collaborative seed grants)to research teams at the University, Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to strengthen collaborations between the three institutions. Two teams that began their research with seed funding recently received a combined $9.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue their projects.

Steven Sibener, the Carl William Eisendrath Professor in Chemistry and the James Franck Institute, and Lance Cooley, a Fermilab materials scientist, partnered to study next-generation materials to improve the technology for making superconducting cavities, key components that increase the speed of particles as they travel through accelerators. The project eventually earned a $1.5 million award from the DOE's Office of High Energy Physics.

"The two-year seed effort helped us to define critical issues and explore fundamental and technical issues," said Sibener. "We were able to extend capabilities and partnerships with other institutions, including Florida State, IIT and Northwestern with DOE funding. It was a win for science and a win for the seed grant program."

A second seed-funded project, which has received major DOE support, teamed up Karen Byrum, an Argonne physicist, Henry Frisch, Professor in Physics, and Erik Ramberg, a Fermilab physicist. Their efforts to build a larger, cheaper, faster and more precise light detector received $8 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding. The new detector has applications for basic science, medical imaging, energy, the environment, national security and industry.

"No one has been able to build big, inexpensive detectors that measure the arrival of light or particles with very precise timing," Frisch said. "It takes money and expertise across a vast array of fields.  That's where Argonne comes in. Argonne has the breadth and depth and world-class facilities that make it ideal for broad-based research."

One daunting challenge was digitizing light signals to measure the arrival time and position of particles within a millionth of a millionth of a second. This kind of speed makes it possible for scientists to identify an incoming particle, or for a medical clinician to pinpoint a tumor's exact location.

So, Frisch and his team, which includes graduate and undergraduate students, worked with the Electronics Development Group at the Enrico Fermi Institute, under the direction of Jean-Francois Genat, to design an integrated circuit that samples and digitizes the signal waveforms of incoming particles up to 40 billion times per second. The first prototype chips have just arrived, and the initial tests are underway.

This project has grown far beyond the walls of UChicago and Argonne. It now includes four national laboratories, five Argonne divisions, three small U.S. companies and electronics experts at the University of Chicago and the University of Hawaii, with a three-year, research- and-development goal of building modules for commercial use.

Origins of the Seed Program

The seed grant program began in 1996 to stimulate new research initiatives between Argonne and the University. In 2005, it was included in the new Strategic Collaborative Initiatives program as part of the University's contract renewal to manage Argonne.

Beyond research collaborations, the SCI program also includes strategic joint appointments and joint institutes. In 2006, when the University began to co-manage Fermilab, it extended the SCI program there and committed $1.5 million each year for five years for both Argonne and Fermilab.

More than 120 faculty members, other academic personnel, and staff members have joint appointments between the University and Argonne. Fermilab and the University have approximately 13 joint appointments and affiliations.

"The seed grant program is relatively small compared to the approximately $1 billion per year in funding both labs receive," said Donald Levy, Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories. "It does allow us, however, to make some 'peer reviewed' evaluations of early-stage basic research, which could grow into larger programs that bring the three institutions closer together."

Staying connected

To strengthen ties and further joint research activity, Fermilab and Argonne began bi-annual meetings between scientists from both laboratories in 2006. 

"These are the two closest national labs in the United States, 16 miles apart," said Young-Kee Kim, Fermilab's Deputy Director and Professor in Physics. "There has been some collaborative work going on, but we could be doing much more."

This year, the University was included in the meetings. Areas for current and potential collaboration include accelerator and detector technology development; accelerator physics education; particle physics; cosmology; computing; and communication.

"The topics are getting broader as time goes on and will require many different types of expertise," she said.

At the most recent meeting on Oct. 12, Director of Argonne Eric Isaacs cited several areas that are ripe for collaboration.

"Argonne is especially interested in opportunities to combine the University's research expertise with Argonne's to strengthen programs that support our national mission, such as energy storage and sustainable energy."