Less than three weeks after it was first powered up, the world’s largest particle accelerator ever built – the Large Hadron Collider – is already out of order.
The $5.5 billion cutting-edge project that involved scientists from 37 different countries – including over 40 from UCSB – is scheduled to resume normal operations in early spring. The now inoperative LHC spans a 17-mile circular vault located 300 feet beneath the city of Geneva, Switzerland and is designed to detect new subatomic particles in order to answer fundamental questions about the creation and mechanics of the universe.
After fifteen years of design, construction and testing, the LHC was successfully booted up on Sept. 10, in front of representatives from 300 global media organizations. A mere 16 days later, the experimental collider suffered a liquid helium leak that froze a large portion of the device, rendering it unusable.
UCSB physicist Joseph Incandela is stationed in Geneva for the next year as second in command of the Compact Muon Solenoid apparatus, one of the main experiments designed for the LHC. While the original success of the LHC proved fleeting, Incandela said morale at the Geneva facility is still high.
“Its certainly a letdown, but people have been working on this project for a long time, so we have learned to be patient,” Incandela said. “This is the fourth time I’ve been involved in the start-up of an accelerator, but this was the first time I was involved with starting a new one. In the past, all those times, it was usually pretty slow and problematic going. If you look at the history of these machines, it normally takes several years to get them configured and running well, which is why everyone is very optimistic that it will work again.”
The European Organization for Nuclear Research – known as CERN – manages the LHC facility in Geneva. In response to the incident that decommissioned the Large Hadron Collider, CERN issued a press release identifying the likely causes of the technical meltdown.
According to CERN, a faulty electrical connection between two of the massive device’s 12,000 magnets triggered the complications. The botched connection caused an electrical short-circuit and released a large amount of liquid helium – which rests just above the temperature of absolute zero, at 270 degrees Centigrade – into a significant section of the LHC.
It will now take several months to thaw out machinery affected by the helium leak, Incandela said. He said the LHC team will proceed with caution to ensure a similar fluke does not occur in the future.
“Right now we need to wait for everything to thaw out so we can check the magnets,” Incandela said. “From what I understand, it could be several months of repairs – it may even take longer because they want to understand more fully what happened. There is pretty good evidence that there is not a basic flaw in the system, but it’s an expensive machine, so you have to move carefully when things go wrong.”