Published online 10 October 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.585


SuperB particle-accelerator project launches

Funding uncertainty could delay high-speed Italian development.

kablooieSuperB will study how heavy particles called B mesons decay into a welter of other exotic particles.L. Taylor, T. McCauley, V. Chiochia, C. Lourenco / CERN

The SuperB factory, a particle accelerator to be built on the campus of the University of Rome Tor Vergata over the next six years, was officially launched on Friday. But the project faces uncertain funding and competition from a Japanese project.

The accelerator will be what physicists call a B-factory, where electrons and their antiparticles, positrons, will race around two 1.3-kilometre-long rings, then collide and produce heavy B mesons. By studying the way these particles decay, physicists hope to fill some of the gaps in the standard model of physics, such as why there is more matter than antimatter in the Universe, and whether the exotic particles predicted by the theory of supersymmetry really exist.

SuperB will produce 100 times more collision events each year than did the two B factories previously built: the BaBar experiment at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, which shut down in April 2008, and the ongoing Belle experiment at the KEKB accelerator in Tsukuba, Japan. This increased luminosity should allow researchers to study even the rarest of physical phenomena.

Italy's National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) is running the project. Under an agreement signed by the INFN and Tor Vergata on Friday, the two will set up an international laboratory to oversee the construction and operation of SuperB; the lab will be named after Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo.

Roberto Petronzio, who will soon give up his post as president of the INFN to become director general of the new laboratory, says that SuperB will complement the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator at CERN, Europe's high-energy physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, by helping to build a theoretical model around the LHC's future discoveries. "Whereas the LHC uses high energies to produce as-yet-unknown particles, SuperB will look for the indirect effects of those particles on the ones we already know," says Petronzio.

The Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa is expected to join the collaboration within a few months. It will build synchrotron laboratories, which will conduct microscopy using the high-energy radiation produced by the accelerator.

Money worries

SuperBThe SuperB particle accelerator will use a 1.3 km-long underground ring, to be built near Rome's Tor Vergata University.INFN

However, more partners will be needed to ensure SuperB's success. The Italian Ministry for Research has promised to provide funds of €250 million (US$340 million), but the INFN estimates that the final price tag for the facility will be between €450 million and €600 million. Some assistance will come from the United States, which plans to provide reusable components from the BaBar detector, worth about €70 million; an agreement with Russia is currently under negotiation; and other European countries have expressed an interest in joining the project, says Petronzio.

Further financial help from the United States is unlikely. In August 2010, an expert panel at the US Department of Energy suggested that the country should limit its participation in the Italian project to the recycled components already committed. The panel recommended that the United States should give direct financial support only to an upgrade of the Japanese Belle experiment, to be called Belle II, work on which will begin next year.

Construction of SuperB is expected to begin next year and operations are scheduled to start in 2017 — a breakneck timetable brought on by the competition with Belle II. Although it will not reach SuperB's luminosity, the upgraded Japanese experiment is expected to start taking data in 2016. "We'll probably be one year late," says Petronzio. "We can catch up because we will see many more collisions, but we cannot afford to be later than that."

Not everyone in the Italian physics community is happy with the project. When SuperB was being presented to the ministry for funding last December, Mario Calvetti, then director of INFN's Frascati National Laboratory, resigned in order to voice his opposition.


"My reckoning is that SuperB will take 15 years to complete, and it will end up draining resources from the other INFN experiments," he says. INFN activities include many other large-scale experiments, such as neutrino and dark-matter research at the Gran Sasso Laboratories, the Virgo gravitational-wave observatory near Pisa and a strong involvement in the LHC.

Fernando Ferroni, incoming president of the INFN, says that Calvetti is not alone in his doubts. "There is some opposition to the project, particularly from those working on other research lines," he says. "SuperB is a great, innovative project, but we will have to make sure that extra money and personnel for it do not come from the INFN's current budget." 

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