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Three Ridiculously Impressive Human Achievements that have been driven by Vacuum Technology

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

(Photo : Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

Vacuum technology | That invisible power behind life-changing physics and nuclear discoveries

1. Einstein didn't think humans would ever detect ripples in the space-time fabric. We instead proved him wrong, over and over. 

An extraordinary, life-changing event happened in April 2020. Thanks to vacuum technology, astrophysicists from the University of Chicago witnessed the collision between two black holes with vastly different masses.

Not only did this provide astronomers with a better understanding of how black holes spin, but it also allowed them to collect experimental evidence of gravitational waves, which Albert Einstein predicted - but never witnessed - in his general theory of relativity.

Einstein believed that we would never be able to detect ripples in space-time. But, a century later, a remarkable experiment proved him wrong. Repeatedly.

The invisible power behind the detection of gravitational waves 

How did scientists accomplish this?

The core experiments that supported this study were carried out in the most extreme vacuum technology conditions with sophisticated equipment. 

Indeed, 'vacuum' technology is at the cutting edge of practically every branch of high-energy physics, particle acceleration, and surface science. A vacuum can be defined as "a space with a pressure significantly lower than the surrounding atmospheric pressure." Ideally, there is no matter or the pressure is so low that any particles in the space do not affect any processes being carried on.

The highest level of vacuum reachable on our planet, known as Ultra-High Vacuum (UHV), is created by employing a device known as an "Ion Pump."

All major advances in ion pump technology have stemmed from Varian Vacuum (now Agilent Vacuum) 1957 development of the sputter ion pump and the ConFlat Flange (CFF). 

The exclusive, extraordinary age of UHV - Ultra-High Vacuum in which we find ourselves today, began with the combination of the two inventions. Vacuum solutions are now being used in academic and government labs, as well as large physics projects, all around the world. Discover more at the Agilent Vacuum Technology Page

Gravitational waves - a short explanation

Einstein predicted, as part of his theory of relativity, that a unique event as the clash of  two extremely massive bodies, such as a planet or a star, could generate space-time deformations. It's called a gravitational wave. These waves move at the speed of light (300,000 km/sec), squeezing and stretching everything in their path, bending the fabric of space-time. Gravitational waves are essentially intangible ripples in space that spread in a similar way to ripples in a pond when a rock is thrown in it.

A star exploding asymmetrically (supernova), two big stars orbiting one other and colliding violently, or two black holes orbiting each other and combining, represent only some of the events that make gravitational waves happen. When such bodies collide, several suns' worth of mass is quickly turned into a huge energy generating gravitational waves.

These ripples reverberate in all directions, travelling through everything, including our planet Earth. Einstein believed that the constant noise and vibrations on Earth would prevent us from capturing such minute variations induced by gravitational waves.

However, humankind succeeded in detecting that "signal". Scientists achieved this by employing highly sensitive machinery known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

What they found was that, despite the fact that the event was only discovered  nowadays, the collision that caused them happened some time back: 1.3 billion years ago.

Einstein was right about gravitational waves and wrong about our capability to catch them. Here's how LIGO made it possible

In 1916, Einstein predicted that collisions of massive objects, like black holes and neutron stars, would produce gravitational waves. Our planet, however, is filled with constant noise and vibrations and those space-time ripples seemed to him too weak to detect.

What made it possible to prove Einstein both right and wrong over a century later was LIGO,  the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. It was specifically developed with the purpose of capturing the minute vibrations in space-time caused by cataclysmic cosmic sources. By successfully recording gravitational waves, it paved the way for the emerging, unforeseen discipline of gravitational-wave astrophysics. 

An ingenious strategy to catch spacetime distortions

Detecting gravitational waves is neither a simple nor a small task. LIGO does this with its L-shaped gravitational wave detectors, essentially two 4 km long under-vacuum arms, employing laser interferometry to catch minute space-time disturbances.

The strategy for detecting these waves is ingenious and is made possible by vacuum technology. To begin, each detector fires a laser beam in the evacuated pipe that is then split into two. Each beam is transmitted down one of two identical perpendicular tubes. They bounce off mirrors at the tube's end and converge back again. The light waves returning from the laser beams align in such a way that they cancel each other out.

When a gravitational wave passes through Earth, however, the spacetime fabric is warped - so 2 tubes get distorted in different ways. This stretching-and-squeezing warp happens while the wave passes so that the two light beams no longer return at equal lengths. Consequently, they do not line up and cancel each other out, and the detector catches some light flashes.


LIGO is situated in two different cities within the United States: its two separated L-shaped interferometers are in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana - a 3836 Km distance from each other. If they both record a signal at the same moment, it's very likely that a gravitational wave is going through Earth.

How the latest vacuum technology allows precise, sharp records

This setup is extraordinarily sensitive. For LIGO to work properly, precise parameters are paramount at all times. First and foremost, a steady high vacuum enables optimal, reliable, and vibration-free functioning.

Agilent partnered with LIGO in designing the vacuum system and manufactured key vacuum equipment like the special ion pumps to meet the demanding requirements, ensuring the experiment success. Find out more about the current technological advancements on the Agilent Ion Pumps Page.

When the gravitational wave detection is successful, you are awarded a chirp. LIGO scientists call these recordings "chirps" because of the sound they make in the data.


2. This telescope will catalogue galaxies outnumbering people on Earth.

The most exciting experiment in the history of astronomy is placed strategically on the summit of Chile's Cerro Pachón mountain. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is the world's largest digital camera capable of revolutionizing our understanding of the universe. It has an eight-meter widefield ground-based telescope, a 3.2 gigapixel camera leveraging the vacuum technology, and an automated data processing system, just to name a few characteristics. 

The LSST project's goal is to capture a substantial chunk of the sky, do it with such frequency that every part of the visible sky is captured every few nights, and continue doing so for 10 years. We'll be able to construct astronomical catalogues that are thousands of times greater than anything that has ever been done before.

The LSST is currently being built and is expected to be operational in December 2023.

By 2033, the telescope, according to its creators, will have catalogued more galaxies than people on Earth. With this massive public data library, our understanding of dark energy and dark matter (which account for 95% of the universe) will skyrocket. The same can be said for galaxy formation and well, potentially dangerous asteroids.


An undeniable technological double challenge | The importance of vacuum for LSST 

The 'heart' of the camera, where the focal plane is located, is called the cryostat section. It is critical to protect this particularly vulnerable and important section by removing as many of the regular atmospheric gases as possible and maintaining pressure control. The answer to these problems is vacuum.

Agilent turbo pumps, scroll pumps, and ion pumps are all installed inside the LSST. Ion pumps in particular are used to keep the most sensitive areas of the telescope under vacuum. One of the reasons the project team chose Agilent ion pumps was that they have no moving parts. This implies that no vibration occurs during the pump's operation, preventing interference with the LSST's camera and allowing the LSST to record sharp and crisp new galaxies.

Another hazardous challenge was solved using vacuum technology, with Agilent supplying again the essential equipment. The temperature at the top of the mountain in Chile, in fact, varies between -10° and 10°C. The lubricant's effectiveness and electronics can fail at lower temperatures. In such a remote location, long periods of instruments'  downtime might jeopardize the entire LSST project.

Agilent dry scroll pumps are vacuum pumps that do not require any fluids to create a vacuum, and they, along with turbomolecular pumps, are the most dependable in those harsh environments.

3. The God particle. Driving particles to unite into stars, planets, and everything else, including ourselves.

When scientists at CERN in Geneva proclaimed that they had almost likely caught this God particle - the biggest and most elusive prey in contemporary physics - they were applauded like rock stars. The Higgs boson, also known as the "God particle", is a cornerstone particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. 

The Higgs boson was  considered as "the missing cornerstone of particle physics," and its presence fundamentally validates the way we believe the universe was formed.

The Standard Model of physics claims, in fact, that the fundamental forces of existence emerge from symmetries and invariance in our universe. Bosons are  particles responsible for transmitting the forces. If the Higgs field, and Higgs boson, didn't exist, the current Standard Model of particle physics would be totally wrong.

This discovery could be proof of the universe-wide field that provided mass to all matter immediately after the Big Bang, driving particles to unite into stars, planets, and everything else, including ourselves.

The Higgs boson is named after physicist Peter Higgs, who, in 1964, along with five other scientists, proposed the Higgs mechanism to explain why some particles have mass. After 50 years of their theorization, scientists validated their existence at CERN, in Switzerland, through the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Higgs and Englert were named for the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Agilent vacuum pumps have been used by CERN for some of the most challenging particle physics experiments

CERN has been working with Varian Vacuum - now part of Agilent Technologies - since 1967, for the ultra-high vacuum (UHV) needed for experimentation. CERN has employed Agilent turbopumps and ion pumps for some of the most difficult particle physics investigations since then, including the 2012 discovery of the Higgs Boson.

CERN awarded Agilent a contract to build ion pumps and controllers for future years. This contract is the most recent step forward in this long-term collaboration, paving the way for new physics and nuclear discoveries.

Carrying on capturing space and time

As research progresses, vacuum technology will always be the hidden engine that drives life-changing physics and nuclear discoveries. Turbo pumps, turbomolecular pumps, vacuum technologies, and vacuum pumps will continue to be used in equipment that capture time and space in ways we can't even imagine yet. The science of vacuum will be at the center of many future discoveries and breakthroughs.

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