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Europe’s energy crisis hits science

Soon 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 electric bill. ASTRON operates the Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR), which relies on large computer clusters to process radio astronomy data. They consume about 2000 megawatt-hours per year—the equivalent of 800 households. When Dempsey sought to renew ASTRON’s energy contracts this summer, she was shocked to find costs had tripled from 2021 levels. To keep the LOFAR running, Dempsey plans to seek emergency energy funding from the Dutch government; without it, she may have to scale back observations. “It’s certainly an existential crisis if these [price] increases continue,” she says.

Surging energy prices are hitting Europe hard—and it’s not just households that are feeling the pain. Institutes that operate energy-hungry supercomputers, accelerators, and laser beamlines are also struggling—and they may be coal mine canaries for the rest of science. If prices continue to soar this fall and winter, “The impact for science is going to be significant,” says Martin Freer, a nuclear physicist who directs the University of Birmingham’s energy institute.

The primary cause of the crisis is a rebound from an economic slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Power generators that had been shut down could not ramp up in time to meet renewed demand, says Jonathan Stern, who studies natural gas at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February worsened the situation. Both European sanctions and Russian retaliation crimped supplies of Russian natural gas, which powers electric generators and heats buildings, pushing continental European gas prices to more than 10 times their average historical values.

Early science casualties came in January, even before the Ukraine war, when Lumius, an energy contractor in the Czech Republic, declared 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 compelled to run Karolina, its most powerful supercomputer, at one-third of its capacity—creating delays for the 1500 users who used it for climate modeling and drug discovery. ELI Beamlines, a Czech facility that hosts high-power laser beams, had to shut down operations for a few weeks.

By May, the Czech government had agreed to bail out both facilities until the end of 2023, but their fate beyond that point remains uncertain. Roman Hvězda, ELI Beamlines deputy director, worries the government will declare a state of emergency, which could restrict the gas supply that the facility needs to heat its buildings. But the electricity that powers the beamlines themselves is the bigger concern. If supplies are restricted, the facility may have to shut down again, for up to 6 months—which would not only curtail ongoing experiments for hundreds of users, but also delay calls for future ones, he says. “So, you’re effectively losing not 6 months, but maybe 12, maybe even 18 months.”

There’s a similar concern at DESY, Germany’s largest accelerator center. The center has bought enough energy in advance to last into 2023, but DESY might not be able to use those supplies if the German government imposes national energy restrictions, says Wim Leemans, who leads DESY’s accelerator programs.

Leemans says DESY is exploring options to run its machines at lower energies. For example, it might turn down 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 continue to serve some users, he says. However, DESY’s two large linear accelerators, used to produce laserlike pulses of x-ray light, would need to be shut down completely if the restrictions are severe. They rely on superconducting magnets that need constant power-hungry cryogenic cooling. It can’t be turned down, Leemans says. “We cannot say, ‘Well, we’re only going to run some parts of the machine.’”

Reducing operations would hurt important research, Leemans says. During the pandemic, vaccinemaker BioNTech used DESY’s x-ray facilities to reveal the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how it uses its surface protein, spike, to dock on human cells. Other DESY researchers study materials used in solar panels and batteries. “It will have ramifications for slowing down innovations, right at the moment when we need them the most,” Leemans says.

Big legacy machines may be hard to restart after a shutdown, adds Anke-Susanne Müller, who heads accelerator physics and technology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Turning off vacuums may damage delicate systems, stopping the flow of water in cooling systems may cause corrosion, and older control electronics might not turn on again. “If you suddenly switch a component off, they might not easily come back,” she says.

CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Switzerland, is also nervously watching the energy crisis unfold. The organization purchases energy from the French grid years in advance, but now the concern is supply. “For this autumn, it is not a price issue, it’s an availability issue,” says Serge Claudet, CERN’s energy coordinator.

CERN uses 1.3 terawatt-hours of energy annually, roughly the equivalent of 250,000 households. French energy authorities might order CERN to not operate at times when the electric grid is least stable–typically mornings and evenings. Depending on the frequency of these requests, CERN’s data output could significantly decrease, Claudet says. He says CERN may have to shut down smaller accelerators in order to fulfill its top priority: maintaining operations for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful accelerator.

Even with energy procured for the short term, Claudet says CERN’s budgets will be stretched to buy energy for the coming years at such high prices. “This is a financial concern because the energy prices on the market are very high, up to 10 times higher,” he says.

Stern predicts it will take at least 2 years for prices to fall to typical levels. Meanwhile, peak prices will depend on the severity of Europe’s winter and whether Asian countries bid against Europe for global supplies of liquid natural gas. Stern says it’s unclear whether governments will keep research labs afloat, or prioritize aiding industrial companies. Smaller research laboratories in universities may be left to fend for themselves, he says.

That could have real-world consequences, Freer warns. He gives the example of accelerators at Birmingham that produce isotopes used in medical imaging—programs that would either need to be suspended, run at a loss, or run with their costs passed down to local hospitals. “It’s going to be a challenging time to get through,” he says. “It may mean, like with COVID, there will be a hiatus in science programs.”

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