CHICAGO (AP) _ A group led by the University of Chicago landed a five-year, $1.6 billion federal contract Wednesday to manage the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, considered the nation's premier physics laboratory.

The deal with Fermi Research Alliance LLC, a group co-owned by the University of Chicago and Universities Research Association Inc., was announced by the U.S. Department of Energy. The contract begins Jan. 1 and could be extended for another 15 years.

Fermilab focuses much of its research on high-energy physics, elementary particle physics and astrophysics.

``Discoveries at Fermilab have helped us understand the fundamental nature of matter, energy, space and time,'' Universities Research Association president Fred Bernthal said in a news release. ``With the strengths of URA and the University of Chicago now combined, Fermilab will continue to provide extraordinary opportunities for discovery.''

The 6,800-acre research facility _ with a staff of 2,000, and an annual budget of about $315 million _ is home to the Tevatron, the world's fastest energy particle accelerator. High-energy accelerators allow physicists to study subatomic particles and their building blocks.

The Tevatron, which accelerates and collides particles in a four-mile-long underground ring, is expected to become outdated in several years when a more powerful one opens in Switzerland, Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson said.

Fermilab's new management hopes to replace the Tevatron with a more powerful accelerator, Jackson said.

Washington-based Universities Research Association is a consortium of 90 research-oriented colleges that has managed Fermilab since 1967. The University of Chicago manages Argonne National Laboratory, which like Fermilab is near Chicago.


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