The value of collaboration

Collaborating with external partners can help to bridge the gap between basic science and society, says Paolo Petagna


One of the most intriguing aspects of my work as a CERN engineer developing detector systems for high-energy physics is the need to wisely mix a solid and reliable design approach with the early interception of cutting-edge technologies. On the other hand, one of the most frustrating sensations many of us have experienced is missing the opportunity to timely develop or access that one special technology that would have made your design so much better or – from a different perspective – your life of engineer so much easier.

Sometimes brilliant ideas generated in-house can be developed internally up to the level of proof-of concept; but the effort required for an industrial partner to bring them into a finite product is judged unworthy. Some other times ground-breaking technologies, with great potential of use in physics detectors, appear on the market; but we simply do not manage to gain access to them. In both cases the main obstacle is represented by the small size of the niche market we represent. The problem at stake to overcome this obstacle can often be resumed with the need of defining well suited arguments of common interests to transfer some key competences to and from an external partner with reciprocal satisfaction.

For this fortunate coincidence of interests to materialize one needs ideally two basic ingredients:

  • an innovative concept, based on a marketable technology;
  • an industrial partner of the correct size and with an innovation-driven vision.

Under these circumstances it is possible to envisage the creation of a synergic partnership aimed to achieve a new common goal through a mutual transfer of competences. Or, out of the bombastic managerial jargon, to simply join forces and walk some step together to try and open a new technological path.

An interesting example of this process is offered by the collaboration agreement recently signed by CERN and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM). The concept of micro-fabricated silicon ultra-thin active devices for the thermal management of vertex detectors was recently introduced by the CERN PH-DT group. Fabrication studies and prototyping activities are carried on using the EPFL-CMI class-100 clean room in Lausanne, while the final production of the operational devices is outsourced to external industrial foundries. However, not all the processing steps for the complete prototyping of these devices are possible with the technologies directly accessible to CERN. Furthermore, for their optimal integration in the design of future detectors, reliable technical solutions should be found for hydraulic connections of minimal size and mass, and for effective electrical connections from the front face to the back face of the silicon devices. The final result of this development, if successful, may well find interesting applications out of high-energy physics, in several advanced industrial fields.

CSEM spotted this opportunity and decided to join forces with CERN, making available its expertise in micro-fabrication and launching a programme to jointly develop the missing blocks for a final product integrating hydraulic and electrical connections into an ultra-thin silicon micro-channel cooling device. At the end of this collaboration, CERN will have full access to a technology that may largely impact the design of future vertex detectors, while CSEM will have developed an internal know-how that will certainly find direct application in its core business.

As CERN engineer, my contribution to our common scientific goal translates into finding ways to push forward the frontiers of technology in order to make our fundamental research a success. In my experience there is an added value in achieving this through collaborative research with external partners: once the technology is ready to serve CERN’s needs, the company might develop it further to make it ready for the market. I personally find extremely rewarding to directly witness how our synergy with external partners may help bridging the gap between basic science and society, promoting technology transfer and therefore innovation.