The direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015 opened a new window to the universe, allowing researchers to study the cosmos by merging data from multiple sources. There are currently four gravitational wave telescopes (GWTs) in operation: LIGO at two sites in the US, Virgo in Italy, KAGRA in Japan, and GEO600 in Germany. Discussions are ongoing to establish an additional site in India. The detection of gravitational waves is based on Michelson laser interferometry with Fabry-Perot cavities, which reveals the expansion and contraction of space at the level of ten-thousandths of the size of an atomic nucleus, i.e. 10-19 m. Despite the extremely low strain that needs to be detected, an average of one gravitational wave is measured per week of measurement by studying and minimising all possible noise sources, including seismic vibration and residual gas scattering. The latter is reduced by placing the interferometer in a pipe where ultrahigh vacuum is generated. In the case of Virgo, the vacuum inside the two perpendicular 3 km-long arms of the interferometer is lower than 10-9 mbar.
While current facilities are being operated and upgraded, the gravitational-wave community is also focusing on a new generation of GWTs that will provide even better sensitivity. This would be achieved by longer interferometer arms, together with a drastic reduction of noise that might require cryogenic cooling of the mirrors. The two leading studies are the Einstein Telescope (ET) in Europe and the Cosmic Explorer (CE) in the US. The total length of the vacuum vessels envisaged for the ET and CE interferometers is 120 km and 160 km, respectively, with a tube diameter of 1 to 1.2 m. The required operational pressures are typical to those needed for modern accelerators (i.e. in the region of 10-10 mbar for hydrogen and even lower for other gas species). The next generation of GWTs would therefore represent the largest ultrahigh vacuum systems ever built.
The next generation of gravitational-wave telescopes would represent the largest ultrahigh vacuum systems ever built.
Producing these pressures is not difficult, as present vacuum systems of GWT interferometers have a comparable degree of vacuum. Instead, the challenge is cost. Indeed, if the previous generation solutions were adopted, the vacuum pipe system would amount to half of the estimated cost of CE and not far from one-third of ET, which is dominated by underground civil engineering. Reducing the cost of vacuum systems requires the development of different technical approaches with respect to previous-generation facilities. Developing cheaper technologies is also a key subject for future accelerators and a synergy in terms of manufacturing methods, surface treatments and installation procedures is already visible.
Within an official framework between CERN and the lead institutes of the ET study – Nikhef in the Netherlands and INFN in Italy – CERN’s TE-VSC and EN-MME groups are sharing their expertise in vacuum, materials, manufacturing and surface treatments with the gravitational-wave community. The activity started in September 2022 and is expected to conclude at the end of 2025 with a technical design report and a full test of a vacuum-vessel pilot sector. During the workshop “Beampipes for Gravitational Wave Telescopes 2023”, held at CERN from 27 to 29 March, 85 specialists from different communities encompassing accelerator and gravitational-wave technologies and from companies that focus on steel production, pipe manufacturing and vacuum equipment gathered to discuss the latest progress. The event followed a similar one hosted by LIGO Livingston in 2019, which gave important directions for research topics.
Plotting a course
In a series of introductory contributions, the basic theoretical elements regarding vacuum requirements and the status of CE and ET studies were presented, highlighting initiatives in vacuum and material technologies undertaken in Europe and the US. The detailed description of current GWT vacuum systems provided a starting point for the presentations of ongoing developments. To conduct an effective cost analysis and reduction, the entire process must be taken into account — including raw material production and treatment, manufacturing, surface treatment, logistics, installation, and commissioning in the tunnel. Additionally, the interfaces with the experimental areas and other services such as civil engineering, electrical distribution and ventilation are essential to assess the impact of technological choices for the vacuum pipes.
The selection criteria for the structural materials of the pipe were discussed, with steel currently being the material of choice. Ferritic steels would contribute to a significant cost reduction compared to austenitic steel, which is currently used in accelerators, because they do not contain nickel. Furthermore, thanks to their body-centred cubic crystallographic structure, ferritic steels have a much lower content of residual hydrogen – the first enemy for the attainment of ultrahigh vacuum – and thus do not require expensive solid-state degassing treatments. The cheapest ferritic steels are “mild steels” which are common materials in gas pipelines after treatment to fight corrosion. Ferritic stainless steels, which contain more than 12% in weight of dissolved chromium, are also being studied for GWT applications. While first results are encouraging, the magnetic properties of these materials must be considered to avoid anomalous transmission of electromagnetic signals and of the induced mechanical vibrations.
Four solutions regarding the design and manufacturing of the pipes and their support system were discussed at the March workshop. The baseline is a 3 to 4 mm-thick tube similar to the ones operational in Virgo and LIGO, with some modifications to cope with the new tunnel environment and stricter sensitivity requirements. Another option is a 1 to 1.5 mm-thick corrugated vessel that does not require reinforcement and expansion bellows. Additionally, designs based on double-wall pipes were discussed, with the inner wall being thin and easy to heat and the external wall performing the structural role. An insulation vacuum would be generated between the two walls without the cleanliness and pressure requirements imposed on the laser beam vacuum. The forces acting on the inner wall during pressure transients would be minimised by opening axial movement valves, which are not yet fully designed. Finally, a gas-pipeline solution was also considered, which would be produced by a half-inch thick wall made of mild steel. The main advantage of this solution is its relatively low cost, as it is a standard approach used in the oil and gas industry. However, corrosion protection and ultrahigh vacuum needs would require surface treatment on both sides of the pipe walls. These treatments are currently under consideration. For all types of design, the integration of optical baffles (which provide an intermittent reduction of the pipe aperture to block scattered photons) is a matter of intense study, with options for position, material, surface treatment, and installation reported. The transfer of vibrations from the tunnel structure to the baffle is also another hot topic.
The manufacturing of the pipes directly from metal coils and their surface treatment can be carried out at supplier facilities or directly at the installation site. The former approach would reduce the cost of infrastructure and manpower, while the latter would reduce transport costs and provide an additional degree of freedom to the global logistics as storage area would be minimized. The study of in-situ production was brought to its limit in a conceptual study of a process that from a coil could deliver pipes as long as desired directly in the underground areas: The metal coil arrives in the tunnel; then it is installed in a dedicated machine that unrolls the coil and welds the metallic sheet to form the pipe to any length.
These topics will undergo further development in the coming months, and the results will be incorporated into a comprehensive technical design report. This report will include a detailed cost optimization and will be validated in a pilot sector at CERN. With just under two and a half years of the project remaining, its success will demand a substantial effort and resolute motivation. The optimism instilled by the enthusiasm and collaborative approach demonstrated by all participants at the workshop is therefore highly encouraging.