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Exploring the structure of space

Exploring the structure of space
Nikhef, the Dutch National Institute of Subatomic Physics, is carrying out research on the building blocks of the universe, their mutual forces and the structure of space and time. There are many questions to be answered regarding spectacular objects in the Universe, such as black holes.

Scientists from all over the world collaborate with Nikhef carrying out research that, on the one hand, focuses on the behaviour of elementary particles in controlled experiments and, on the other, on the observation of particles coming from the universe towards the Earth. Hence the implementation of the international project KM3NeT (an acronym for Cubic Kilometer Neutrino Telescope), a research infrastructure that houses next-generation neutrino telescopes, with an overall size of more than one cubic kilometer.

Installed in the deepest seas of the Mediterranean Sea, KM3NeT will open a new window to our universe, also contributing to the search for the properties of the elusive neutrino particles. Through the study of neutrinos, made possible by KM3NeT’s sophisticated technology, researchers hope to discover where cosmic rays come from and how particle accelerators work in the universe. Specifically, scientists in the international network will search for neutrinos from distant astrophysical sources, such as supernovae, gamma rays or colliding stars thanks to KM3NeT’s thousands of optical sensors that will detect the faint light in the deep sea from charged particles originating from neutrino and Earth collisions.

KM3NeT consists of digital optical modules (DOMs): football-sized glass spheres filled with 31 phototubes arranged in hundreds of lines about a kilometre long anchored to the seafloor. And that’s when Nikhef commissioned Weerg to create an essential component of the DOMs. These are semi-spheres measuring 380 mm, made by the Italian 3D printing service provider using HP Multi Jet Fusion 5210 3D printing technology, for which Weerg has the largest European installation.

“The first order arrived about two years ago and since then the collaboration has continued with regularity, even for higher and higher runs,” explained Francesco Zanardo, General Manager of Weerg. “So far, we have produced about 300 of these spheres, which have the particularity of having the maximum size that can be printed with HP systems.”

Orders are coming in regularly from Nikhef and its European partners, and in addition to the spheres, numerous smaller components have also been 3D printed, again for the KM3NeT project. As Edward Berbee of Nikhef observed: “We have been working on this project since 2013 and over the years we have contacted about 50 different suppliers. Initially, the prices of 3D printing were unfeasible, then we found a supplier with reasonable prices, but he was only able to make the component in two divided parts that we had to glue together afterward.

Berbee continued: “this solution was certainly not optimal, so we continued to analyse new technologies, until we discovered the interesting performance of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion systems. While we were considering whether or not a research institution like ours should purchase the system, we read an article announcing Weerg’s installation of HP 3D printers”.

Berbee and his team immediately placed an initial test order, which proved to be excellent in terms of service and quality. Another extremely attractive benefit for Nikhef was the option of painting the parts offered by Weerg, which the Institute previously did manually. Berbee said: “The parts we order from Weerg are painted black at a cost that is absolutely competitive with the resources we had to deploy.”

The material chosen for the parts manufacture is Nylon PA12, offered by Weerg along with PA11 and polypropylene. Rigid and resistant, it is in fact ideal for functional prototypes and final parts ensuring excellent chemical resistance to oils, greases and hydrocarbons. Moreover, nylon PA12 absorbs very little humidity, thus guaranteeing excellent performance in any environment and condition. Asserting the quality of technologies and materials, Nikhef also confirmed the excellence of Weerg’s customer service, with Berbee maintaining: “We always receive very quick answers, even at night and on weekends”.

Regarding the usability of Weerg’s e-commerce, Berbee commented: “The platform is extremely easy to use and even easier for repetitive orders because it enables you to access your library of files that have already been uploaded”.

Another aspect Nikhef appreciates is the ability to have discounting inversely proportional to delivery time. “We can schedule our work ahead of time and that, for the same quality, gives us a significant economic advantage,” added Berbee.

When the KM3NeT project is completed there will be more than 6,000 spheres installed on the seafloor in three different locations, off the coast of France, Italy and Greece.

Commenting on the contract, Zanardo said: “We are proud to have been chosen by Nikhef to contribute, albeit in a small way, to the realisation of this project. The reason that we have been chosen is related to the fact that we can make these components very easily, uploading the files online from anywhere in the world and dispatching the completed order in a few days with the same guarantee of compliance and quality throughout Europe.” And Berbee confirmed: “All the jobs we have commissioned have been completed to a high standard and achieved complete compliance. This fully meets one of the requirements of our project, which requires shipping components to different sites.” And the components printed by Weerg have been sent to Athens, Catania, Strasbourg, Naples, Erlangen, etc. without any problems.

In fact, some components printed by Weerg have already been used and positioned in our site in the Mediterranean Sea off Toulon where, to date, 108 spheres are already operational. Another detection station in Sicily is under construction and by April will see the installation of 90 units. Without wanting to please anyone, based on my experience, I can say that Weerg is the best 3D printing service in the world in all respects!”

The KM3NeT project will be completed in 2024 off the coast of France, where low-energy neutrinos generated by cosmic rays interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere will be detected. Off the coast of Italy, it will be completed by 2026. Here the studies will focus on neutrinos resulting from supernovae caused by what can be considered as the final acts of distant stars.

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