The Five Buckets of IARC at Fermilab

Mauricio Suarez

In last week’s article, I shared some insight into the rebranding of IARC at Fermilab. In today’s article, I’d like to give you a glimpse inside our goals and aspirations and how we can help Fermilab make an even greater impact on the world. The “Five Buckets” represent the five major activities that make up the IARC mission and strategy. Some of these buckets are an extension or continuation of the team’s work over the last five years. Others are new efforts and initiatives.

  1. Accelerator technology development (compact SRF)

We will continue the great work that was started under the first IARC director, Bob Kephart, to develop a compact superconducting radio-frequency, or SRF, accelerator. The compact SRF accelerator incorporates several Fermilab-developed technologies: an integrated electron gun, a low-heat-loss RF coupler, niobium-tin coating for higher-temperature operation and cryocooler conduction cooling to eliminate liquid cryogens.

Our next step is to integrate these Fermilab technologies into a working 1.4-MeV, 20-kW prototype with the goal of having a 7.5-MeV, 200-kW cryogenic SRF system as the first article. The prototype could be used for proof-of-concept work at the IARC building, and the first article could be used for medical device sterilization, among other uses.

We have been successful at securing funding to develop the various components of the Compact SRF Accelerator, forming new partnerships with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center and the National Nuclear Security Administration. We will continue our efforts to secure additional funding to complete both the 20-kW prototype and the first article.

  1. Electron beam industrial application development

IARC at Fermilab has a 9-MeV, 1.2-kW linac, known as A2D2, available to Fermilab and outside partners for conducting tests with electron beams. If you are interested in using an electron beam to see whether you can emulate heat damage, promote a chemical reaction or alter the physical properties of a material, give us a call. We have worked with the Accelerator Division to explore thermal effects on potential target materials. We have also worked with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of greater Chicago to explore e-beams as a tool to destroy contaminants in water.

We are starting a partnership with 3M Corporation, a joint project funded by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, to explore the elimination of recalcitrant contaminants in water. Stay posted. There will be more on this in a future article authored by another IARC team member!

We will continue these efforts and further explore possible niche applications for the use of electron beams in industry (again, we are eager to hear your ideas).

  1. New technology exploration

Building on the lessons we have learned from the Compact SRF Accelerator development, we are prepared to expand into other technical areas where Fermilab has a leadership position that could, if developed, have commercial applications. To qualify as a new opportunity, the technical area must be an active area of research at Fermilab and have the potential to satisfy a customer need. A Fermilab patent application or copyright filing would be great-to-have but not a necessity.

We see potential in detector, quantum and computing technologies. (If I’ve missed a technology area that fits the criteria above, give me a call.) After considering our options, we have decided to partner with the Fermilab AI community to explore possibilities for commercialization.

IARC applied for and obtained funding through the Joint Task Force Initiative (a University of Chicago-national-laboratory initiative) to partner with Argonne and University of Chicago and organize a workshop on AI. We will have a webinar in November and a technical workshop on March 2021. Keep an eye out for more on these two events.

IARC is also interested in exploring the commercialization potential of Fermilab’s AI efforts in an entrepreneurial way. That is, our approach is not to build something and then find people who may be interested in what we’ve built (“build it and they will come”). Instead, we will talk with possible customers to understand their needs (“customer discovery”). The insights from those conversations will illuminate our commercial path. Depending on the technology, we may have access to DOE’s Energy I-CORPS program or to the University of Chicago Polsky I-corps program. Both are customer discovery programs and have a great reputation.

To enter an I-CORPS program, we need to create a team. For a team leader, we looked internally for a person that has participated previously in the Fermilab Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Practicum, participated in Energy I-CORPS or has taken business classes at University of Chicago. This participation signals interest in entrepreneurial activity. For instance, IARC recruited Matteo Cremonesi to lead the AI team effort. Matteo will find a business partner at UChicago through the upcoming Collaboratorium event and then participate in the Polsky I-Corps program in September. The IARC team and Fermilab AI experts will be supporting Matteo’s team efforts.

The purpose of the exercise is to find a commercial application or niche where it makes sense to double down and invest in the opportunity.

There are several deliverables with the customer discovery approach. We validate a “customer need.” We explore a commercial area of a technology: What are the AI startups developing? Who are the competitors? Where are the opportunities? We provide Fermilab personnel with experience in entrepreneurship. And we connect Fermilab personnel with the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the region, including with centers such as the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

We look forward to informing the Fermilab community on the progress on our approach as we move along.

  1. Entrepreneurship in the community

Much of entrepreneurship is about talking to people and creating connections. This is how you understand and meet prospective customers, investors and business partners. It can be a challenge for our Fermilab innovators and for entrepreneurs outside of Chicago’s business district to connect with the entrepreneurial community there.

IARC is working toward building that connectivity. IARC will have a permanent spot (shared with Fermilab workforce development) at the University of Chicago’s Harper Court Building in order to better connect with our colleagues at Argonne, UChicago, the Chicago Quantum Exchange and other institutions.

We are also forging relations with P33, mHub and Illinois Innovation Network. There are many other organizations to connect with, and we look forward to doing so soon.

We also look forward, in the entrepreneurial spirit, to sharing what we are learning about the community. For example, Aaron Sauers, licensing and patenting professional at the Fermilab Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer, received a call from a local entrepreneur asking for guidance on getting their technology to market. Aaron and I got back to him and were able to connect him to the Polsky program. As with any community, the entrepreneurial community around Fermilab will only grow with the involvement and TLC from all its members, you included.

  1. Stewardship of the IARC building

Our last bucket relates to the IARC building. The building was constructed with support from DOE and the state of Illinois to develop partnerships with private industry for the commercial and industrial application of Fermilab technology. It is a building with a diverse set of tenants from different divisions. We still do not know in what capacity we will represent IARC’s original mission to the building’s community. It could be as a tenant liaison or as a landlord (if the right stars aligned). What is clear is that we need to be careful that, as space is needed in the lab, the original mission of the building is not lost and that we continue to have space available for industrial partners.

Our mission:

To recap: The IARC at Fermilab mission is to advance technologies developed by Fermilab toward commercialization and, with industry partners, help create products and services that improve the health, wealth and security of the nation.

Let us know how we can help convert your ideas and developed technologies into products and services. Your innovations could very well have an impact on the world.

Mauricio Suarez is the Fermilab deputy head of technology development and industry engagement.