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New Physics lab will change our world

- By Erna van Wyk

The new state-of-the-art High-Throughput Electronics Laboratory (HTEL) in the Wits School of Physics is the exemplar for future scientific endeavours in South Africa.

The HTEL will not only play a big role in science and in developing high-end technologies, but it is also the blueprint for innovation where “like-minded scientists and colleagues who have a single-mindedness to change the world, will come together,” Professor Adam Habib, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, said.

Speaking at the launch on Friday, 14 November 2014 – in the presence of leaders and representatives from the University, industry and the physics-related fields in South Africa, such as the SA-CERN Consortium, SKA SA, the CSIR, the Centre for High Performance Computing, and the Joburg Centre for Software Development, among others – Habib emphasised that the HTEL will show how scientists and universities in South Africa, and in Africa, can be “both globally competitive and nationally responsive”.

“The HTEL it is an institutional mechanism of a broader institutional community that spans nations, institutions, and sectors, and that will try to understand our world and change it,” Habib said. Listen to his address

The new lab and facilities will be a platform for research and development of high-throughput electronics for the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

Professor John Carter, Head of the School of Physics, said with the high resurgence of interest in physics and physics-related research, and with Big Science coming to South Africa, there is a need to cope with the “explosion of data” and to develop a platform for processing huge amounts of information. Listen to his address

The laboratory is designed to deal with the problem of Big Data related to the processing of large amounts of data needed to produce new discoveries, following the observation of the Higgs boson at the LHC, to which Wits physicists also contributed. The study of the Higgs boson will require about a 100 times more data than used for the discovery, announced in 2012 – a discovery that led to physicists François Englert and Peter Higgs being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. This poses new challenges to the Big Data problem and requires the development of new solutions.

One of the founding fathers of the Atlas project, Professor Peter Jenni, praised the Wits Atlas Group for the establishment of the HTEL. Speaking via a video-conferencing link from Geneva, Jenni said the lab is remarkable and will have benefits well beyond Atlas. Listen to his address.

The spin-offs will be even greater

The science and technologies being developed to deal with big data will also lead to the massive production of electronic devices by South African industries based on the designs produced in the HTEL. According to Professor Helder Marques, Dean of the Faculty of Science, the HTEL-project also shows why science and education needs more investment in South Africa. Listen to his address.

Professor Bruce Mellado from the Wits Atlas Group and the High Energy Physics Group (HEP) in the School of Physics led the way in establishing the HTEL at Wits. He is very passionate about the technologies that will be developed here: “The first direct spin-off is the development of low-cost computers for the South African educational system – both for schools and universities. We are already in touch with a number of schools that will test our first prototype hopefully starting in January or February next year.” Prototypes shown at the launch also demonstrated that they can run sophisticated applications such as running a conference facility and a 3D-printer.

Mellado, an expert on the Higgs boson and a member of the ATLAS Experiment at CERN, says Wits is helping to establish a synergy between two Big Science fields in South Africa - CERN/ATLAS SA and the SKA SA. The first project was in January this year when Wits hosted the first High Performance Signal and Data Workshop. Over a hundred scientists gathered together from the two fields, including a large student contingent. The HTEL will take this work forward. Listen to his address.

The spin-offs are not limited to the development of low-cost computers. The high-tech solutions that will come from the HTEL will be very important for science and technology. The HTEL is developing general-purpose devices that can handle the processing of very large amounts of data in a cost-effective and compact ways. These devices can be used in a wide range of industries in South Africa and abroad.

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