Accelerator Operators: Pillars of Particle Physics

Despite the fact that accelerator operators are essential to keeping an accelerator lab afloat, the role is largely unknown outside of physics, even to the people who end up in this position.

“It was a kind of position that I didn’t know about or didn’t even know existed before,” says Judah O’Neil, who has worked for the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for two years. .

At Fermilab, accelerator operators are responsible for maintaining and operating the machines needed to deliver particle beams to all experiments around the lab.

It all starts with the 500-foot Linear Accelerator, or Linac, which operators use to kick a beam of protons for the first time. From the Linac, the proton beam heads to the Booster, a 1,500-foot circular accelerator that increases the energy of the beam. From there, operators can direct the beam to different parts of the complex, including Fermilab’s neutrino and muon experiments.

By directing protons from the Booster to a target, operators can create low-energy neutrino beams for neutrino experiments. Operators can also transfer a beam from the booster into the 2-mile-circumference recycler instead to alter its composition or produce muon beams for muon experiments. The transfer of protons from the recycler to the main injector, the next step in the line, allows operators to increase the energy even further. They use the Main Injector, also 2 miles in circumference, to produce the world’s highest intensity neutrino beam for long baseline neutrino experiments.

The PIP-II construction project, currently underway, will expand the capabilities of the entire accelerator complex with a brand new 700-foot superconducting linear accelerator.

All of this, as well as the maintenance of the different parts of the accelerator complex, goes through the accelerator operators in the main control room at Fermilab.

Each group of operators, led by a team leader, rotates day, evening and night to staff the control room 24/7. “[Having rotating shifts] allows you to get to know everyone and gain experience at different times of the day,” says O’Neil. “You can be in the control room and talk to the experts, see what’s going on and meet everyone.”

Working in the control room requires operators to perform multiple tasks. They must follow multiple monitors on their individual consoles, as well as larger screens that display general system status and weather radar across the room, as the accelerator complex can be affected by storms. Beeps, beeps, and other sound effects provide auditory cues that can cut through the noise of people entering to check access keys, notify operators of a problem, or simply drop in for a quick hello. If something goes wrong, the operators are the ones to investigate and fix the problem or find a more experienced operator who can.

Operators don’t learn to manage these responsibilities overnight. They follow a training period that lasts for their first two years of work.

“You’re not even assigned to a crew for your first month because you’ve just had initial training,” says Laura Bolt, who has been an operator since November 2021. “For the first year to two years that you’re here , your main goal is to complete this training and also be useful in the control room.

Once operators complete their on-the-job training, or OJT, they can then specialize in a specific area or help train new operators.

“When you start out, you do things, but it’s usually under supervision or you watch someone do something, so you learn how to do it,” says Cassidy Mayorga, who has been an operator for four years. “Then you slowly move on to doing it on your own, and then you do it to teach other people.”

Mayorga sits on the training committee and helps ensure training documentation is up to date.

FCE consists of studying instruction manuals and taking written tests, supplemented by in-person instruction from experienced operators.

Since much of an operator’s training comes from collaboration and hands-on supervisory experience, the pandemic has had a significant impact on Fermilab’s main control room. The usual hustle and bustle came to a halt as operators acclimated to new schedules and skeletal crew changes to allow for social distancing. “It was a big adjustment,” says Mayorga. “It was very quiet and a bit unnerving.”

For operators who were hired during the pandemic, the gradual lifting of restrictions and the more recent return to semi-normal day-to-day operations have given them a new appreciation for the expertise of their colleagues.

“It’s really good to have these conversations with the experts and to be able to have a lot of people in the control room at once because you get different opinions, you learn a lot of things,” O’Neil says.

Operators are a diverse group. Some of them knew they wanted to work at Fermilab from an early age, others came across the job by accident. There are writers, like Bolt; amateur astronomers, like O’Neil; and Ultimate Frisbee enthusiasts, like Mayorga. Many share at least one interest: video games.

Bolt, O’Neil, and Mayorga all say that being an operator is a great job for anyone interested in the practical elements of particle physics, including those who don’t plan to follow the usual path all the way through. a doctorate in physics. “The cool factor of this work is right off the charts,” Bolt says. “It’s the perfect place for non-traditional physics students.”

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