Following the initial meltdown of the Large Hadron Collider project, officials with Louisiana Tech’s physics department now must take a wait-and-see approach as to its restart.

Hopes are that the project will begin again in the spring of 2009, after repairs are made following a breakdown when the project first began last week. Until then, Tech’s physics department will continue its work developing detection software to find any other possible problems with the collider.

“It’s disappointing for sure,” Lee Sawyer, head of the Tech physics department, said. “But hopefully repairs can be made and we can get this thing up and running again by spring. And it does give us a little more time to work on software that could help in possibly detecting and preventing problems with the collider in the future.”

A giant particle accelerator, the LHC was designed to send two beams of protons racing toward each other at nearly the speed of light in a 17-mile long underground ring, guided by super-cooled magnets.

Eventually the beams ram into each other, giving off data to an ATLAS detector that hundreds of scientists working on the project could use to try to answer questions on the fundamental nature of the universe.
The project could possibly prove — or thereby disprove — the “Big Bang Theory” of the creation of the universe by answering questions like why are some particles massive while others are without mass, how did the world come into existence, why is there matter and not antimatter, and are there other dimensions?

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, built the LHC underneath the Franco-Swiss border between the Jura Mountains and the Alps near Geneva, Switzerland. It was funded by and built in collaboration with over 8,000 physicists from more than 85 countries as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories at a cost in the vicinity of $10 billion.

The LHC circulated its first particle beams Sept. 10 but had to suspend operations a few days later after faulty connection between two magnets triggered a shutdown, delaying its operation for two months. Because of an already planned winter shutdown for maintenance, the collider will not be started again until spring.

“Coming immediately after the very successful start of LHC operation, this is undoubtedly a psychological blow,” CERN Director General Robert Aymar said in a Sept. 23 press release. “Nevertheless, the success of the LHC’s first operation with beam is testimony to years of painstaking preparation and the skill of teams involved in building and running CERN’s accelerator complex. I have no doubt that we will overcome this setback with the same degree of rigor and application.”

The LHC tunnel has two parallel beam pipes that intersect at four points with each one holding a proton beam which travels in opposite directions around the ring. More than 1,200 dipole magnets maintain the beams on their circular paths, while another 392 quadruple magnets are used to keep the beams focused, maximizing the chances of interaction between the particles in the four intersection points, where the two beams will cross. In all, more than 1,600 superconducting magnets are utilized, with most of them weighing over 27 tons. Approximately 96 tons of liquid helium is used to keep the magnets at their operating temperature of 1.9 K — two degrees above absolute zero and colder than outer space.

Sawyer said scientists must now find out why the magnets in the LHC quenched and how to prevent it from happening again. During a quench, a magnet can be damaged by high voltage, high forces or, in the case of the LHC, high temperature. The work going on at Tech is finding ways to detect such quenches and keep them from happening.

“There is a sense of worry because there are so many magnets in the collider, that overheating could happen again,” Sawyer said. “And if it happens again, who knows what will happen with the project? But hopefully we can use information we already have, and some that we’ll get when it goes back into operation, that will help us learn more about how the magnets and the way they operate. That way, hopefully we can prevent that kind of quenching from happening again.”

Sawyer added that he expects Tech to take an even more hands-on approach when the LHC starts back up in the spring.

“Hopefully we’ll have a graduate student in Geneva working on the project by spring,” Sawyer said. “We’re going to continue our work here, and hopefully this little setback will teach how to prevent it from happening again when the LHC gets back up and running.”

By T. Scott Boatright, News Bureau writer

Written by Judith Roberts