“Flanders must be the driving force behind the construction of the Einstein telescope”

While Limburg companies are investigating how the Einstein telescope worth 1.9 billion euros can be built, they are waiting for money from the government. The Netherlands made 900 million euros available to look deep into space from Limburg.

‘When customers ask me about solutions to problems for which machines already exist, I prefer to take care.’ For Jef Hoste from the Limburg machine builder Werkhuizen Hengelhoef, there can be a challenge in his work. When he heard through the Limburg Provincial Development Company that Europe was considering building an underground observatory for space at the three-country point between Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, he was released. ‘I would like to contribute to that.’

The essence

  • With an Einstein telescope, scientists can look deep into space. Until the big bang.
  • Such an underground telescope costs 2 billion euros. Belgium, together with the Netherlands and Germany, is a candidate to build the construction on the three-country point. Sardinia in Italy is also an option.
  • In 2025, Europe will decide where to place the Einstein telescope.
  • The Netherlands has already announced that it is ready to invest 900 million euros.

The Einstein Telescope, not coincidentally abbreviated ET, is one of the most ambitious scientific projects in Europe. The observatory, which will be located 250 meters underground, will help detect gravitational waves that will allow scientists to look deeper into space than ever before.

Gravitational waves are created when two celestial bodies, such as black holes, collide. This collision creates a ripple in space-time. The well-known physicist Albert Einstein predicted the phenomenon in 1916. The effects of such a collision on Earth are so difficult to measure that we were only able to measure this for the first time in 2015. With the current equipment, scientists see around a ripple per week. . The Einstein telescope was to provide hundreds of observations a day.

The construction of the project is estimated at around 2 billion euros. To share the costs, Belgium is working with Germany and the Netherlands on a project to realize the Einstein telescope near the triple point. Sardinia in Italy is also competing for the project. A decision from Europe is expected in 2025. Lobbying is in full swing.

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Save transportation costs

“We are currently in the so-called engineering phase,” says Nick van Remortel, professor of physics at the University of Antwerp. The universities of Liège and Leuven, including the physicist Thomas Hertog, are also collaborating on the project. The first drawings for the construction are prepared, risks and costs are also examined. In the Netherlands, Germany and our country, collaborations are being established between academia and industry to prepare the construction of the observatory down to the smallest detail.

The people who invented the concept of the telescope are undoubtedly very smart, but scientists do not always have the necessary technical knowledge to assess what is possible in reality.

Jef Hoste

Manager Werkhuizen Hengelhoef

‘The people who came up with the concept of the telescope are undoubtedly very smart,’ says Hoste, ‘but scientists do not always have the necessary technical knowledge to assess what is possible in reality.’ For example, the construction of the Einstein telescope requires 120 kilometers of stainless steel tubes that are vacuumed. They must fit together perfectly and no pieces must come loose. Otherwise, the measurements made with laser technology will be affected.

How to build such a reliable pipe network more than 200 meters underground? Werkhuizen Hengelhoef, in collaboration with FEF, a research group from Aachen, is conducting a feasibility study on the possibility of producing the steel pipes underground via a mobile site. ‘In this way, we can reduce the chance of potential leaks, but also save on transport costs,’ says Hoste. Aperam, the manufacturer of stainless steel, is already involved in the project.

Economic return

The Dutch government announced in mid-April that it had released € 42 million to support preliminary investigations. In addition, it reserved an additional 870 million euros for the construction of the Einstein telescope.

The conversations I have at the moment are about amounts in the tens of thousands of millions, which is peanuts compared to what our northern neighbors are doing.

Nick van Remortel

Professor of Physics UAntwerpen

The project is not just about scientific prestige. The economic potential and the boost that such a project can give to technological innovation play an equally important role. An impact assessment from 2018 initially estimates the direct financial return at 3 billion euros. 1,500 jobs are at stake, hundreds of millions in contracts for local businesses and a boom in technological innovation.

“In Flanders, the urgency is not yet present,” says Nick van Remortel. ‘The conversations I have at the moment are about amounts in the tens of thousands of millions, which is peanuts compared to what our northern neighbors are doing.’

At the end of last year, the Flemish Minister for Innovation Hilde Crevits (CD&V) appointed a project manager to prepare the case financially, legally and technically. ‘We will look at how the final funding will look from our side after these preparations,’ the government said. Ultimately, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are expected to jointly prepare a final financing offer. ‘Other countries are also interested in participating in this project.’

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