By Siv Schwink
April 19, 2016
John Blackburn, a physical-science technical assistant in the experimental nuclear physics group at Physics Illinois, has been selected for a prestigious Chancellor’s Distinguished Staff Award (CDSA) in recognition of his exceptional accomplishments and service to the University of Illinois. Blackburn’s name will be inscribed on a permanent plaque in the Staff Human Resources offices, and he will receive a commemorative plaque and a monetary prize of $2,000.
Blackburn has worked closely with faculty, postdoc, and student members of the nuclear physics group at Illinois for 18 years, fabricating highly specialized advanced scientific instrumentation for experiments at accelerator facilities at national laboratories and in China, Switzerland, and Germany.
Senior Research Engineer Eric Thorsland, who nominated Blackburn for the award, says that Blackburn has worked on a broad range of instrumentation projects.
“Recent projects he has completed include the mechanical design and construction of a forward electromagnetic calorimeter for PHENIX at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the mechanical strength analysis, R&D, and construction of a large-area drift chamber for the COMPASS experiment at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland,” shares Thorsland. "He also developed a technique for automatically adjusting for tool wear, with tolerances better than 50 microns, during the machining of raw G10 profiles into 10-foot precision anode and cathode frames for the COMPASS large-area drift chamber."
Professor Matthias Grosse Perdekamp has worked on many projects with Blackburn. He shares:
“These are challenging long-term projects that require not only great technical skill and a high degree of precision, but also tremendous perseverance and excellent organizational and management skills, to keep the projects on schedule and to overcome significant technical challenges. John is a great asset to our group and truly deserves this recognition. He is a superb technician, drafting engineer, and instrumentation developer. And his contributions to innovation, efficiency, and working climate are likewise exceptional. We are fortunate to have him.”
Professor Doug Beck remembers Blackburn’s earliest work for the group.
“John’s work for us began with fabrication of specialized particle detectors. The key to the success of these devices was careful assembly—there were many steps that had to be executed precisely. He did all the assembly on his own, managing the entire process from start to finish. These detectors were used very successfully in ground-breaking measurements at Brookhaven National Laboratory that have been internationally recognized.”
According to Grosse Perdekamp, Blackburn’s contributions have expanded since that first project.
“John constantly works to expand his knowledge and skills,” asserts Grosse Perdekamp. “ This has given the nuclear physics group the ability to conquer new instrumentation technology and has saved us significant research funds that otherwise would have been spent bringing in outside expertise.”
Critical technical skills Blackburn has mastered while in his current position include computer-aided mechanical design of instruments; structural analysis of mechanical instrument components; construction and operation of cryogenic systems for large liquid He-4 targets for use in high-precision magnetic fields; high-precision machining of large mechanical detector components made of abrasive composite materials; and techniques for cutting scintillating optical fibers and plastics with diamond tools for superior surface qualities.
Grosse Perdekamp sums up, “I have worked with technicians and engineers on instrumentation for nuclear physics experiments at Freiburg and Mainz Universities, CERN, Yale, Los Alamos, BNL, and Illinois—John stands out as one of the very best technicians and instrumentation developers I have ever worked with.”
Blackburn and the other 2016 CDSA winners will be honored at a banquet this spring.