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Even before Latvia becomes a full member of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), its doors are slowly opening for Latvian companies; Primekss, a company that manufactures innovative concrete, is involved in a collaboration project that could serve as a springboard to unprecedented markets.
«To be chosen by CERN is a great honour for Primekss concrete,» says Jānis Ošlejs, the company’s CEO. Primekss Ltd. is one of Latvia’s most innovative and successful exporting companies, its composite material is acknowledged as a smart material praised for its endurance, flatness, longevity, and sustainability, and the company has earned its place on the global market as an industrial concrete flooring manufacturer.
In collaboration with Riga Technical University (RTU), the Institute of Solid State Physics of the University of Latvia (CFI), and CERN, the company plans to find ways to manufacture concrete with a focus on increased radiation safety as
part of a joint research and development (R&D) project. «We must take special measures so that radioactive particles do not enter the environment, for example, because of cracks in buildings. The concrete we make prevents cracking, but we must examine how radioactive materials influence that,» explains Rolands Cepurītis, the company’s chief technology officer. J. Ošlejs adds that the concrete is waterproof and gas proof. The research intends to determine the properties of concrete when it gets in contact with gas, especially tritium, whether it is possible to reinforce concrete with other materials, for example, glass fiber that is used today instead of steel fiber. They would have to test the material for its ability to prevent fluid infiltration as well, for instance, heavy water infiltration.
Potential partners have already been assigned their area of responsibility in the R&D project. CERN has the experience and infrastructure necessary to work with radioactive materials, it would ensure end product testing by checking its compliance with the requirements of the organization. Primekss would take care of advanced concrete samples, RTU would help with concrete solutions and testing for the evaluation of its mechanical properties, but CFI would carry out gas diffusion measurement for the new material. CFI is experienced, and has developed a technology for measuring how well the material can detain gas (gas diffusion), says Andris Anspoks, Deputy Director for innovations, adding that the greatest challenge for the project is the ability to detain helium. «We are researching diffusion in fuel cells. After discussions with the company, we understood that our technology needs to be only slightly modified so that it could be applied to this study,» he continues.
If after implementing the R&D project Primekss has the rights to manufacture and sell concrete with enhanced properties, the company will have access to unprecedented niche markets, admits the technology officer. Even now, Primekss is active in export markets, the number of which is nearing two dozen. The solution would have a practical application in business, for instance, in the petroleum industry — Toms Torims, Latvian representative to CERN, Director of RTU Centre of High Energy Physics and Accelerator Technologies, points out a specific niche market; J. Ošlejs and R. Cepurītis both consider him the catalyst for the collaboration between CERN and Primekss. «We had no clue that CERN is interested in us,» J. Ošlejs is being honest.
Collaboration with CERN or being a «CERN supplier» is an internationally recognized mark of quality and excellence for companies. Taking part in CERN projects unlocks the opportunities to work with other scientific laboratories, for example, the space industry, says T. Torims and adds «we are a small country, so this is a huge opportunity for us». Primekss’ managers agree, stressing that there are opportunities not only for innovative manufacturers or IT companies — CERN outsources a lot of IT solutions applicable for any business. It is a large financially reliable organization that also needs basic things, for example, pencils or toilet paper. In 2017, CERN budget was almost EUR 960 million.
Latvian road towards CERN is possible due to the determined activities of RTU. Since 2012, when the university signed the collaboration agreement with the organization, RTU has been working hard not only to strengthen the scientific links with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, but also to help Latvia become a CERN member state. The main objective of CERN is to ensure the operation of international large-scale research infrastructure for the physics research of high-energy particles. Presently three Latvian scientists work there — the abovementioned T. Torims, Artūrs Ivanovs and Viesturs Veckalns, who work there on their Doctoral theses. Likewise, Latvian scientists have the opportunity to join CERN science experiments and research projects. Even though the founding purpose of the organization was to provide infrastructure for European scientists, it is not simply a large laboratory used for researching high-energy particles, but also a place for research, technology, and innovation collaborations, creating everyday things and services and later introducing them for production. These include now almost commonplace things like the internet, touch screens, CT scans, etc.
Primekss is not the only Latvian company, which is interested or could potentially be interested in working with CERN. Nuclear Medicine Centre Ltd., which partly belongs to Riga Stradiņš University (RSU), is interested in joining CERN-MEDICIS, the goal of which is to ensure the acquisition of radioisotopes used in diagnostics and therapy. Baltics Scientific Instruments Ltd., a manufacturer of various measuring instruments, is also interested in joining, confirms Vladimirs Gostilo, President of the company. The company develops and makes nuclear electronics, detectors, sensors, spectrometers, scintillators, specific software, and custom measuring instruments, and it has experience with CERN projects. Now they wish to renew the collaboration. V. Gostilo knows that presently only US companies can offer equipment of equal worth. The Latvian company could create competition and influence the service prices. «As soon as Latvia becomes an associate member or full member, CERN will be obliged to purchase devices from the Latvian company — this is what we call the European priority,» adds T. Torims.
At the beginning of this year, the government entrusted the Ministry of Education and Science (IZM) to draft a contract for the Latvian government and CERN on Latvia joining CERN as an associate member state in the pre-stage to membership. The Ministry plans to prepare and submit the contract to the government until the end of the year and become an associate member state in the pre-stage to membership in 2019. The status will give Latvian companies and scientific institutions the right to participate in CERN public procurements and research projects, and use the CERN infrastructure. The Ministry of Education and Science analyzed CERN public procurements from member states
and associate member states in 2015 and concluded that 25.6 % has been in the field of electronic engineering and energy industry, followed by 16.9 % in civil engineering and construction, 8.8 % in structural engineering, and 8.1 % in computer systems and communications. In various industries «It is difficult to name a field that CERN is not willing to collaborate in,» admits T. Torims. The Ministry of Education and Science, too, summarized information on the competence and capacity of Latvia’s high-tech companies and named the following range of technology development and services as having potential for collaboration with CERN: accelerators, magnets and cryogenics, detectors and
measuring instruments, electronics, information and communications technology, materials science and mechanics. Among the companies interested in getting involved in procurements, are, for example, Kepp EU Ltd., a silicon metallurgy company; SAF Tehnika, a company that makes unique microwave transmission equipment; Vizulo, a company that makes and sells LED lamps; Hanza Matrix, a manufacturer of 3D displays, optics, amplifiers, and LCD optical equipment; EUROLCDS Ltd, which opened the biggest liquid crystal display factory in Europe five years ago in Ventspils. Admittedly, as for the information and communications technology (ICT) industry, which is very important
in particle physics, CERN is one of the most important driving forces for ICT achievements, as they invented the internet — Mikrotīkls Ltd., and AS RIX Technologies JSC may be interested in orders.
As for materials science, potential companies include Sidrabe, manufacturer of vacuum coating technology equipment and tools, Groglass, a company that makes invisible glass, and Tenachem, a major player on the construction sealing market, etc. We cannot rule out that orders may be interesting to companies in other fields.
Before we can reap benefits from CERN, Latvia must meet several criteria, and one of them is having commercially viable companies and the ability to show their potential and competence in taking part in CERN procurements. We must also show our political will to join CERN, the state must commit to supporting its membership in this organization long-term. To achieve that, we need considerable financial resources — more than one million euro per year. The good news is that for the most part, CERN budget is spent on developing and maintaining scientific infrastructure that is available to all participating countries. There must also exist a scientific community for high-energy particle
physics, and the country must commit to its long-term support. To comply with the criteria, at the beginning of this year, leading universities in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania established the CERN Baltic Group, which created international Master and Doctoral study programs in particle physics, so that Baltic students could acquire knowledge necessary for collaboration with CERN and be useful in industry — in companies that work in the fields related to particle acceleration. Itwill be an internationally unique interdisciplinary program combining fundamental and applied sciences — particle physics and accelerating technologies. The plan is that students will have internships at CERN, University of Latvia could teach particle physics, and RTU will be in charge of the technologies part.