What do CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Wendelstein 7-X and the X-ray laser XFEL have in common? They are big science projects that rely on a team of experts from the Scientific Infrastructure Section at the Institute of Nuclear Physics PAN in Krakow, Poland.

“To make big science, you have to build the device first,” says Dr Zenon Sulek from the Institute of Nuclear Physics PAN. The physicist knows what he is talking about. He spent nine years installing and assessing the quality of vital components at CERN and at Wendelstein 7-X. Sulek could also say “to make any experimental science, you have to build it first,” because building his own physics experiments has led him to acquire the special expertise that turned out to be so useful for big science experiments.

Science and technology partnership

The Institute of Nuclear Physics has a long history of elementary and particle physics. Its scientists have been working at CERN from the experiment’s very beginning and in the 1990s the institute became an official CERN partner. The involvement in the construction of experiments started when Zenon Sulek joined CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project in 2003. The group he led was involved in the construction of the magnets’ interconnections – for vacuum, power supply or electrical signals. Together with another Polish CERN scientist, Dr Blazej Skoczen, he set off formulating quality standards for these connections.

Recognising the need for this kind of expertise, the institute in Krakow formed two expert groups – the InterConnection Inspection Team headed by Zenon Sulek, and the Electrical Quality Assurance team led by his colleague Dr Andrzej Kotarba. They wrote inspection procedures, outlined the technology needed for the task and submitted a proposal to CERN. From 2005 until 2008, their job was the quality assurance for the interconnections which had been installed by a commercial partner. Each group comprised between six and 15 people, depending on the project phase.

Zenon Sulek (right) and  Andrzej Kotarba (second from right) and their teams  in June 2005

Zenon Sulek (right) and Andrzej Kotarba (second from right) and their teams in June 2005 in surface inspection hall of the LHC magnets at CERN. Zenon Sulek’ deputy, Leszek Hajduk, stands on the left. (Picture private)

As they were starting to pack up in Geneva, another big science project had heard of their expertise and offered up another really challenging task, that of connecting the strangely shaped superconducting magnetic coils in the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator. For the next six years, some 50 engineers, physicists and technicians from Krakow were involved first in preparation and training and then in the assembly and first level quality assurance of these superconducting connectors known as bus-bars. The effort amounted to more than 160 full time equivalent years. One year ago, the project was successfully completed and – after having lived four years in Switzerland and five in Greifswald – Zenon Sulek is now back in Krakow. “I am officially retired,” he says, “ but I still work in the institute”. His counterpart Andrzej Kotarba, is back in Germany again – assembling cryomodules and superconductors at the European X-ray Laser XFEL. Construction is scheduled to finish in 2015. Some other colleagues are back at CERN, carrying out additional work at LHC during the current shutdown.

The fun of making big science work

All in all, about 50 members of the institute’s expert groups are working abroad, and a smaller number is active in Krakow. The Institute of Nuclear Physics has an interest in such collaborations as an ‘in-kind’ contribution to big science facilities, and so the base of technicians and their expertise have continuously grown. Even though working abroad sometimes is hard, especially for young families, the groups are proud to be part of these big science projects. To ease the travelling, the institute has a rotating staff of technicians who are abroad for several months and then work at home for the same length of time. Management, however, needs to be on site most of the time, which is the reason why Zenon Sulek spent so many years living abroad – often taking his family with him. Does he miss travelling now? Not really, he says.“ I am engaged in many interesting projects, so I’m not getting bored”. And then there is FAIR – the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research –, which is under construction in Darmstadt, Germany. Another big science project that Zenon Sulek and his colleagues from Krakow are helping become reality.