Luc wins prize for outstanding internship in Geneva

Luc Wigbout’s internship at CERN in Geneva was a complete success. Just before corona hit, he had the opportunity to spend time at an inspirational location where researchers are working on grand projects and his colleagues were international students. During his lunch break he enjoyed views of the Mont Blanc. And he was working on a very challenging assignment: calculating design parameters for a re-ionisation cell, a cell in which uncharged particles acquire a negative charge. His work was absolutely top notch and even earned him a prize: the 2021 NNV HBO Young Talent Award. Luc is thrilled about it.

The more ionised particles, the better

An Engineering Physics student, Luc was able to snag an internship at the world-renowned CERN research institute with the help of lecturer Jeroen Oostinga. Once there, he used blueprints to design a so-called ionisation cell in a simulation programme. He defined the preconditions and the physics that would be used in the cell. Then by inserting different values he looked for the ideal ratio between two criteria: generating as many ionised particles as possible while keeping the pollution of the vacuum configuration to a minimum. Six months of hard work resulted in a physics model that the team at CERN continued to use after Luc’s departure.

What can it do

As a layperson, I wonder why you would need that many ionised particles. Luc: ‘The negative charge allows you to change the direction of the particle bundle, for example with electrical fields.’ That sounds useful. What exactly happens in an ionisation cell? ‘The cell works because cold helium is injected into a tube. The incoming particle bundle goes through this tube and interacts with the helium. An electron will ‘jump’ from the helium to the particles in the bundle. This gives the bundle a mostly negative charge, which means it’s ionised, before it leaves the cell again.’

Finding a balance

The more helium you inject into the tube, the more particles ionise. But with a high inflow of helium, you run the risk of polluting the rest of the vacuum configuration. So it’s really a matter of finding a balance. Luc: ‘The inflow of helium, the pump velocity of the vacuum pump and the helium temperature combined determine how well the cell works.’ CERN is using Luc’s results to adjust the conditions to find an optimal balance.

Prize is a great reward

Winning the Dutch Physics Association (NNV) award was a wonderful reward for Luc. ‘I’m very pleased with this external recognition. I do this because I enjoy it and not to win an award. It’s already very rewarding that people are continuing to work with my results.’ The award ceremony had to be held online for the second year in a row because of the pandemic. This meant that even more family members and friends could witness Luc’s joyous occasion. The fact that the NNV is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year and is now allowed to add the title ‘royal’ to its name, made the 2021 edition extra special. In addition to a certificate, Luc also received €500.

Jeroen Oostinga supervised Luc during his internship and felt it was more than fair to give him the award. ‘The assignment was both theoretically and technically very challenging (above the level of a university of applied sciences) and Luc worked very independently. His critical thinking helped him figure out the problem and the underlying physics. His on-site supervisor was very impressed with his work.’

An internship is more than just work

During his internship Luc also took the time to enjoy hikes in the Jura mountains. A 15-minute walk would bring him to great views of Geneva and the magnificent lake beyond. And of course he bought a chocolate cauldron during the Fête de l’Escalade and smashed it. With this tradition, the residents of Geneva commemorate a failed attack on their city in 1602. He learned a lot more than physics in Switzerland. He also learned about other cultures, for example. A Swedish student baked saffron buns for the entire research group to mark the Lucia celebration. And there were different views on nature within the group.

Physics model is not absolute truth

He also gained an important insight during his stay in Switzerland. Luc personally experienced that physics models have their limitations. ‘Every model is nothing more than an approximation of a far more complex world. It’s not the absolute truth. I think these philosophical foundations are important for physics and it’s good to acquire these insights yourself. It’s very different from reading about it in a book.’