A troubled €300 million nuclear physics research facility in Romania may now have to do without one of its main components, a gamma ray beam designed to probe the heart of atoms. That’s because the U.S. company contracted to supply the gamma ray source may be on the verge of bankruptcy, according to sources familiar with the situation.
“It would really be a disaster for us if the project was not completed as foreseen,” says Călin Ur, project leader for the Extreme Light Infrastructure–Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP) facility on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania.
The Romanian effort is one of three laser research centers in the €1 billion ELI, approved by the European Union in 2009. The other two centers, in the Czech Republic and Hungary, are close to being fully operational. But ELI-NP, operated by Bucharest’s Horia Hulubei National Institute for R&D in Physics and Nuclear Engineering (IFIN-HH), is mired in legal problems and lagging behind. The center aims to study the structure of atomic nuclei and the quantum particles that pop in and out of empty space, using two 10-petawatt lasers alongside the world’s most intense gamma ray beam.
The Bucharest center originally contracted with EuroGammaS, a consortium of European research institutes and companies, to supply the gamma ray source. But the partnership turned sour when EuroGammaS said it could not install the device because the lab had an uneven floor. In 2018, IFIN-HH ended its €67 million contract with EuroGammaS—which the consortium fought to reinstate in court. And in 2019, IFIN-HH hired a small U.S. firm called Lyncean Technologies to start over and build a gamma ray source under a €49 million contract.
Set up in 2001 as a spin-off from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University to develop miniature x-ray sources, Lyncean designed a device that would circulate electrons in a storage ring and then slam the particles into a laser beam to boost the photons to gamma ray energies. Lyncean product manager Benjamin Hornberger told Science in May 2021 that pandemic-related delays had made the company’s schedule “tight.” But he was nevertheless confident the company could install the gamma ray source by early 2023, as stipulated in the contract. Indeed, according to ELI Delivery Consortium Director General Allen Weeks, as recently as September 2021 ELI-NP told its scientific advisory committee that, aside from a few small delays, the company had made good progress with the gamma ray source. So the news about the company’s struggles came as a shock, he says. “They are bankrupt or about to declare bankruptcy,” Allen tells ScienceInsider.
Lyncean did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking clarification of its financial situation. But according to another source familiar with the situation, a bank has contacted IFIN-HH about problems with a Lyncean loan. A third source says the company sent home employees working on the gamma ray beam at the beginning of February and those people had yet to return to work.
Ur confirms that Lyncean has “very big problems” in honoring the contract, but says the company intends to try to solve those problems—while pushing back delivery to the end of 2023. He admits that a failure to deliver the gamma ray source would be a “disaster” for the project, potentially forcing Romania to pay the European Union back tens of millions of euros for the unrealized hardware.
Sorin Costreie, a research adviser to Romania’s prime minister, is confident that ELI-NP will end up with a gamma ray source—despite uncertainty about who will provide it. “Maybe we will finish the job with EuroGammaS,” he says.
After so much acrimony, would the consortium be willing to try again? Pierluigi Campana, who represents Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics on EuroGammaS’s governing board, says he won’t rule out the possibility but stresses that any new contract would entail renewed negotiations.
Weeks is confident that ELI-NP will fire up even without the gamma source, arguing that the project could enable “some interesting science” with its laser systems alone. But the absence of the source, he says, would mean “a major part of the science case is missing.”