In this article, you will get all information regarding Europe’s energy crisis hits science | Sciences – media drift
Shortly after Jessica Dempsey became director of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) in December 2021, she was forced to focus not on the stars, but on the electricity bill. ASTRON operates the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), which relies on large groups of computers to process radio astronomy data. They consume about 2,000 megawatt-hours a year, the equivalent of 800 homes. When Dempsey sought to renew ASTRON’s power contracts this summer, she was surprised to discover that costs had tripled from 2021 levels. To keep LOFAR running, she Dempsey plans to seek emergency power funds from the Dutch government; without it, she may have to narrow down the observations. “It certainly is an existential crisis if these [price] the increases continue,” she says.
Rising energy prices are hitting Europe hard, and it’s not just households that are feeling the pain. Institutes that operate power-hungry supercomputers, accelerators and laser lines are also struggling, and may be coal mine canaries for the rest of science. If prices continue to rise this autumn and winter, “the impact to science will be significant,” says Martin Freer, a nuclear physicist who heads the energy institute at the University of Birmingham.
The root cause of the crisis is a rebound from an economic slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Power generators that had been shut down were unable to ramp up in time to meet renewed demand, says Jonathan Stern, who studies natural gas at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February made the situation worse. Both European sanctions and Russian retaliation reduced the supply of Russian natural gas, which powers electric generators and heats buildings, driving gas prices in continental Europe to more than 10 times their average historical value.
The first scientific casualties came in January, even before the Ukraine war, when Lumius, an energy contractor in the Czech Republic, filed for bankruptcy, forcing many of the country’s universities and research facilities to buy energy at much higher prices from the region’s main supplier. IT4Innovations, a national supercomputing center, was forced to run Karolina, its most powerful supercomputer, at one-third capacity, causing delays for the 1,500 users who used it for climate modeling and drug discovery. ELI Beamlines, a Czech facility that houses high-power lasers, had to shut down operations for a few weeks.
In May, the Czech government agreed to salvage both facilities until the end of 2023, but their fate beyond that point remains uncertain. Roman Hvězda, deputy director of ELI Beamlines, fears the government will declare a state of emergency, which could restrict the gas supply the facility needs to heat its buildings. But the electricity that powers the beamlines themselves is the biggest concern. If supplies are restricted, the facility may have to shut down again, for up to 6 months, which would not only reduce ongoing experiments for hundreds of users, but also delay calls for future ones, he says. “So effectively, you’re not losing 6 months, but maybe 12, maybe even 18 months.”
A similar concern exists at DESY, Germany’s largest accelerator hub. The center has purchased enough power in advance to last until 2023, but DESY may not be able to use those supplies if the German government imposes national power restrictions, says Wim Leemans, who heads DESY’s accelerator programs.
Leemans says that DESY is exploring options to run its machines at lower energies. For example, it could shrink its synchrotron, a circular particle accelerator that produces bright X-rays for imaging proteins and materials, so that it generates only lower-energy “soft” X-rays. That way, it could still serve some users, he says. However, DESY’s two large linear accelerators, which are used to produce laser-like pulses of X-ray light, would have to be shut down entirely if restrictions are severe. They are based on superconducting modules that need constant cryogenic cooling that consumes a lot of energy. It can’t be turned down, says Leemans. “We can’t say, ‘Well, we’re just going to run some parts of the machine.’”
Cutting back on operations would harm important research, says Leemans. During the pandemic, vaccine manufacturer BioNTech used DESY’s X-ray facility to reveal the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how it uses its surface protein, the spike, to attach to human cells. Other DESY researchers study materials used in solar panels and batteries. “It will have ramifications for slowing down innovations, right at the time we need them most,” says Leemans.
Large legacy machines can be difficult to restart after a shutdown, adds Anke-Susanne Müller, director of accelerator physics and technology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Turning off vacuums can damage delicate systems, stopping the flow of water in cooling systems can cause corrosion, and older control electronics may not turn on again. “If you suddenly turn off a component, it may not work easily again,” she says.
CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Switzerland, is also nervously watching the energy crisis unfold. The organization buys power from the French grid years in advance, but now the concern is supply. “For this fall, it’s not a price issue, it’s an availability issue,” says Serge Claudet, chair of CERN’s energy management panel.
CERN uses 1.3 terawatt-hours of energy per year, roughly the equivalent of 250,000 homes. French energy authorities could order CERN not to operate at times when the power grid is least stable, usually in the morning and at night. Depending on the frequency of these requests, CERN’s data output could drop significantly, says Claudet. He says that CERN may have to shut down smaller accelerators to meet its top priority: keeping the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful accelerator, operational.
Even with short-term purchased power, Claudet says CERN budgets will be stretched to buy power for years to come at such high prices. “This is a financial concern because energy prices in the market are very high, up to 10 times higher,” he says.
Stern predicts that it will take at least 2 years for prices to fall to typical levels. In the meantime, the maximum prices will depend on the severity of the winter in Europe and whether Asian countries bid against Europe for the global supply of liquefied natural gas. Stern says it’s unclear whether governments will keep research labs afloat or prioritize aid to industrial companies. Smaller research labs at universities may have to fend for themselves, he says.
That could have real-world consequences, Freer warns. He gives the example of accelerators in Birmingham that produce isotopes used in medical imaging, programs that would have to be discontinued, run at a loss, or run with their costs transferred to local hospitals. “It’s going to be a tough time to get through,” she says. “It may mean that, like with COVID, there will be a pause in science programs.”
Correction, September 9, 10:45 am: An earlier version of this article said that DESY used superconducting magnets in its two large linear accelerators. The article has been corrected to reflect that DESY actually uses superconducting RF modules.
Correction, September 13, 10:50 am: An earlier version of this article said that Serge Claudet was the energy coordinator at CERN. He recently took over as chair of CERN’s energy management panel.
Europe’s energy crisis hits science | Sciences – media drift
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