Taking the neutrino stage

25 May 2022

As he winds down his term as ATLAS upgrade coordinator, Francesco Lanni looks ahead to his new role as leader of the CERN Neutrino Platform. 

Francesco Lanni

You’ve worked on ATLAS since the early days?

Yes, having trained as a high-energy physics experimentalist with a focus on detector R&D, I joined ATLAS in 1998 and began working on the liquid-argon (LAr) calorimeter. I then got involved in the LAr calorimeter upgrade programme, when we were looking at the possible replacement of the on-detector electronics. I then served as leader for the trigger and data-acquisition upgrade project, before being elected as upgrade coordinator by the ATLAS collaboration in October 2018, with a two-year mandate starting in March 2019 and a second term lasting until February 2023. Because of the new appointment to the Neutrino Platform I will step down and enter a transition mode until around October.

What are the key elements of the ATLAS upgrade?

The full Phase-II upgrade comprises seven main projects. The largest is the new inner tracker, the ITk, which will replace the entire inner detector (Pixel, SCT and TRT) with a fully silicon detector (five layers of pixels and four of strip sensors) significantly extended in the forward region to exploit the physics reach at the High-Luminosity LHC. The ITk has been the most challenging project because of its technical complexity, but also due to the pandemic. Some components, such as the silicon-strip sensors, are already in production, and we are currently steering the whole project to complete pre-production by the end of the year or early 2023. The other projects include the LAr and the scintillating-tile calorimeters, the muons, trigger and data acquisition, and the high-granularity timing detector. The Phase-II upgrades are equivalent in scope to half of the original construction, and despite the challenges ATLAS can rely on a strong and motivated community to successfully complete the ambitious programme.

What are the stand-out activities during your term?

The biggest achievement is that we were able to redefine the scope of the trigger-systems upgrade. Until the end of 2020 we were planning a system based on a level-0 hardware trigger using calorimeter and muon information, followed by an event filter where tracks were reconstructed by associative memory-based processing units (HTT). The system had been designed to be capable of evolving into a dual-hardware trigger system with a level-0 trigger able to run up to 4 MHz, and the HTT system reconfigured as a level-1 track trigger to reduce the output rate to less than 1 MHz. We reduced this to one level by removing the evolution requirements and replacing the HTT processors with commodity servers. This was a complex and difficult process that took approximately two years to reach a final decision. Let me take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation for those colleagues who carried the development of the HTT for many years: their contribution has been essential for ATLAS, even if the system was eventually not chosen. The main challenge of the ATLAS upgrade has been and will be the completion of the ITk in the available timescale, even after the new schedule for Long Shutdown 3. 

What led you to apply for the position of Neutrino Platform leader?

Different factors, personal and professional. From a scientific point of view, I have been interested in LAr time-projection chambers (TPCs) for neutrino physics for many years, and in the challenge of scalability of the detector technology to the required sizes. Before being ATLAS upgrade coordinator, I had a small R&D programme at Brookhaven for developing LAr TPCs, and I worked for a couple years in the MicroBooNE collaboration on the electronics, which had to work at LAr temperatures. So, I have some synergetic work behind me. On a personal level, I’m obviously thrilled to formally become part of the CERN family. However, it has also been a difficult decision to move away from ATLAS, where I have spent more than 20 years collaborating with excellent colleagues and friends.  

I am still planning to be hands-on – that is the fun part

What have been the platform’s main achievements so far? 

Overall I would highlight the fact that the Neutrino Platform was put together in a very short time following the 2013 European strategy update. This was made possible by the leadership of my predecessor Marzio Nessi, a true force of nature, and the constant support of the CERN management. The refurbishment of ICARUS has been a significant technical success, as has the development and construction of the huge protoDUNE models for the two far detectors of LBNF/DUNE in the US. 

What’s the status of the protoDUNE modules?

The first protoDUNE module based on standard horizontal-drift (“single phase”) technology has been successfully completed, with series production of the anode plane assembly starting now. Lately, the CERN group has contributed significantly to the vertical-drift concept, which is the baseline technology for the second DUNE far detector. This was initially planned to adopt “dual phase” detection but has now been adapted so that the full ionisation charge is collected in liquid-argon after a long vertical drift. Recently, before I came on board, the team demonstrated the ability to drift and collect ionisation charges over a distance of 6 m, which requires the high voltage to be extremely stable and the liquid-argon to be very pure to have enough charge collected to properly reconstruct the neutrino event. There is still work to be done but we have demonstrated that the technology is already able to reach the requirements. The full single-phase DUNE detector has to be closed and cooled down in 2028, and the second based on vertical drift in 2029. For an experiment at such scale, this is non-trivial.

What else is on the agenda?

The construction of the LBNF/DUNE cryostats is a major activity. CERN has agreed to provide two cryostats, which is a large commitment. The cryostat technology has been adapted from the natural-gas industry and the R&D phase should be completed soon, while we start the process of looking for manufacturers. We are also completing a project together with European collaborators involving the upgrade of the near detector for the T2K experiment in Japan, and are supporting other neutrino experiments closer to home, such as FASER at the LHC. Another interesting project is ENUBET, which has achieved important results demonstrating superior control of neutrino fluxes for cross-section measurements. 

What are the platform’s long-term prospects?

One of the reasons I was interested in this position was to help understand and shape the long-term perspective for neutrino physics at CERN. The Neutrino Platform is a kind of tool that has a self-contained mandate. The question is whether and how it should or could continue beyond, say, 2027 and whether we will need to use the full EHN1 facility because we have other labs on-site to do smaller-scale tests for innovative detector R&D. Addressing these issues is one of my primary goals. There is also interest in Gran Sasso’s DarkSide experiment, which will use essentially the same cryostat technology as DUNE to search for dark matter. As well as taking care of the overall management and budget of the Neutrino Platform, I am still planning to be hands-on – that is the fun part.

What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead? 

For the next two years the biggest challenge is the delivery of the two cryostats, which is both technical and subject to external constraints, for instance due to the increase in the costs of materials and other factors. From the management perspective, one has to acknowledge that the previous leadership created a fantastic team. It is relatively small but very motivated and competent, so it needs to be praised and maintained. 

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