How the energy crisis hit science in Europe


The current energy crisis in Europe could be the most serious in at least the last 50 years. Rising energy prices have become a serious problem not only for ordinary Europeans and industry. Some areas of science are already suffering from the current situation. The fact is that many institutes operate energy-intensive supercomputers, accelerators, laser systems and other energy-intensive equipment. Many of them have to reduce the number of important studies. Moreover, problems arose in January of this year, that is, before the events in Ukraine. If energy prices continue to rise this fall and winter, the damage to science will be critical.

What is happening with science in Europe

Science first felt the hardships of the energy crisis in the Czech Republic when an energy contractor filed for bankruptcy in January of this year. As a result, research centers and universities had to buy energy at higher prices, forcing a reduction in research.

For example, IT4Innovations, the national supercomputing center, began to use the Karolina supercomputer at a third of its capacity. This resulted in 1,500 users being unable to access it in a timely manner. Of course, we are not talking about private users, but researchers who model the climate, work on the creation of new medicines, and so on.

In the Czech Republic, the power of the supercomputer had to be reduced by a third

ELI Beamlines, the Czech research center that hosts powerful laser systems, has suspended operations for several weeks. Although, the Czech government undertook to provide electricity to both facilities until 2023. However, their leadership fears that a state of emergency will be declared in the country, as a result of which they will limit the supply of not only electricity, but also gas to heat buildings. As a result, hundreds of users will not be able to conduct their experiments. In fact, the work of the centers will be stopped.

Of course, this situation has developed not only in the Czech Republic. For example, Germany’s largest accelerator center DESY paid for electricity until 2023. But, if the German government imposes energy restrictions, electricity will not be supplied in full.

True, this does not mean that the work of DESY will be completely stopped. Equipment with lower power consumption may be involved. However, DESY’s two large linacs would have to be shut down, damaging important research.

Germany’s DESY Accelerator Center will shut down two large linear accelerators

To give you an idea of ​​the importance of this equipment, the vaccine manufacturer BioNTech used DESY X-ray equipment to reveal the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Also, thanks to this equipment, it was possible to find out how the virus uses the spike protein to attach to human cells.

DESY equipment is also used to study materials for solar panels. Accordingly, the development of renewable energy technologies will slow down just at the moment when they are urgently needed.

It must be said that some research centers and universities have equipment that is not designed to completely stop at all, so it will be difficult to restart it. For example, the physico-technological department of accelerators at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology has such equipment. Breaking the vacuum can damage sensitive systems. Stopping water flow in cooling systems can cause corrosion. In addition, the old control electronics may simply not turn on after a downtime.

Even CERN could be left without electricity

How the energy crisis will affect CERN

CERN needs no introduction. This is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, which is located in Switzerland. The organization purchases energy from the French network. Currently, CERN is not so much concerned with the price of electricity as with the issue of its supply, which this autumn and winter can be significantly reduced.

During the year, CERN consumes about 1.3 terawatt-hours of energy, which is equal to about 250,000 private households. For such an organization, this is not so much. However, there is a possibility that the French power engineers will prohibit the laboratories from working during periods when the power grid is the least stable. This usually happens in the morning and evening.

It is quite possible that CERN will have to abandon the use of small accelerators in order to operate the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful accelerator in the world.

The energy crisis in Europe will last at least another two years

When will the energy crisis end?

Experts cite the recovery from the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic as the main cause of the energy crisis. Electric generators were unable to quickly increase capacity to meet the increased demand for electricity. In addition, as we said earlier, Europe has long begun to reduce the volume of its own gas production. European sanctions against Russia and retaliatory actions have exacerbated the situation.

According to experts, energy prices will fall no earlier than in two years. At the same time, the peak cost will depend on the weather conditions this winter. It is not yet clear whether governments will support research laboratories or industrial enterprises will be a priority. However, it is already clear that the development of technology in any case will slow down in the near future.

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