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How mega science projects could help India become a $5 trillion economy

Industries based on physics & mega science projects reportedly generate over 16% of the total turnover in Europe, topping contributions from financial services.

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Geneva: Prime Minister Modi has set a goal of making India a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25. In addition to infrastructure, banking and agriculture, certain sectors have been prioritised to achieve the goal and drive employment opportunities.

Industries based on physics and mega science projects generate over 16 per cent of the total turnover in Europe, topping contributions from financial services and retail sectors, according to a report.

Among all physics areas, high energy physics (HEP), given the gigantic scale, complex technology and large-scale facilities, is naturally a significant contributor.

India has an opportunity to combine its existing expertise in different areas of mega science projects with intellectual property (IP) that rests in premier labs around the world to intensify the contributions of each field to the country’s economic dream.


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Technology for society

Relevant state-of-the-art technologies were initially developed for fundamental research at institutions like CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

These are fine-tuned to meet exacting research specifications, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which was built to run experiments on particle collisions. These are based on sensors exploiting silicon wafers, specialised crystals and gaseous mixtures for detection of radiation.

Often they are improved versions of techniques used in the past, with remarkable augmentation across technology and techniques. This ranges from component size and count, and power reduction, to data storage and bandwidth advances, demonstrating that technology is a great enabler.

A plethora of technologies is already available, for example, at CERN, in majorly three sectors — accelerator, detectors and computing. They have been successfully used for various societal applications, as shown here (Page 9).

LHC Grid Computing involves algorithms that have numerous applications in banking, finance and weather forecasts. Data quenching technology built in high-energy physics can be used in developing teaching aids as well as in safety monitoring.

High performance embedded computing (HPEC) systems can be used for several applications like the US’ Department of Homeland Security does in aerospace and communications industry.

Sensors from High Energy Physics (HEP) have been used for 3D imaging of the body in medical diagnostics.

Radiotherapy devices deliver cancer treatment by means of particle accelerators, also using positron emission tomography (PET) scanners that contain photon detectors based on crystals.

India can seize an opportunity in moving technology from the desktop in a laboratory to the industry by strengthening the link between industries and technological spin-offs. Developing, investing and commercialising technologies based on mega science IP can create the impetus needed for the Indian ecosystem by a commensurate choice towards domestic demands and environment.

Such technologies, if incubated by the Indian industry, can not only contribute to the economy, but also help society.

For example, the healthcare sector can be equipped to offer affordable care through domestic manufacture of expensive machines based on mega science technologies.


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Going commercial

Commercialisation of particle physics is at an embryonic stage. The changes brought about by India’s $5 trillion dreams provide a fertile seeding ground for scaling this up. A strong platform with interconnection, creating a mutually beneficial particle physics ecosystem in India, can provide an overarching strategy.

This will need the involvement of the four major players who can enable it: Academic institutions, scientists, government and industry. A major impact factor can be established through partnerships across the board, internationally as well as within the country.

A key part of the strategy should include leveraging the IP already available in particle physics and taking advantage of India’s strength in frugal innovation.

The initiative will capitalise on incentives and facilitation that are being planned by the government for research and development in science, medical-value travel and IT sectors.

In order to drive innovation, partnerships are required that bridge the gap between research & development (R&D) and its applications. This requires effective dialogue with all relevant players, policies that benefit IP, industrial partners, and other knowledge-transfer strategies.

India is participating and is heavily committed in several mega science projects at international laboratories and institutions that are at the leading edge of R&D. Examples include LIGO-India for furthering gravitational-wave research, the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), which will have an accelerator for particle physics, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and, of course, CERN.

The technologies exploited in these large collaborations also offer significant commercial potential, forming the base to involve Indian industry for product development initiatives. These span a wide range of sectors, from medical, healthcare and nuclear power, to radioactive waste management and homeland security.

International success stories

The medical sector has seen the most widespread adoption of developments in particle physics technologies.

The more we can peer into how tiny particles zip around, the more we can utilise the same tech to peer into tiny processes in our bodies.

Over 1,500 positron emission tomography scanners have been built using crystal technology from HEP by GE healthcare at a cost of $250,000-$600,000 each, with which around 1.5 million PET scans are performed per year in the US.

The Medipix chip was developed as a side project for a tracking application in particle physics. Its potential quickly realised, the second generation of chip was licensed by the company PANalytical and is at the core of the PIXcel system, of which over 500 systems are currently being deployed worldwide.

Low-dose high-precision 3D imaging applications for diagnosis using sensors developed in particle physics are in use.

Proton and particle therapies are used in a large number of cancer treatment centres in the world, exploiting the IP from HEP.

Given the increasing incidence of cancer in India and the region, there is massive societal impact that can be delivered. This also forms the basis for a viable commercial model. A net benefit of approximately 1.6 billion has been projected in an equivalent European cancer treatment (accelerator-based) facility, over 10 years.

For commercialisation to take effect, a multi-disciplinary setting is needed where particle physics engages with other disciplines involving both academia and industry, and this must be enhanced and strengthened.

There is a need for international collaborations and networks, and help to young people from our field, many of whom go into industry, to develop as entrepreneurs creating spin offs and start-ups.

Industry is looking for talent from our community — let’s help them find it. Medical, industrial and research applications of particle physics technologies are located at the nucleus for the spiral of development of a strong ecosystem that will deliver a benefit to India for decades to come, creating a vibrant particle physics community that will continue to grow, innovate and contribute to the economy.

Archana Sharma is a senior physicist at CERN and a project manager at the CMS experiment that made the Higgs Boson discovery.


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