The LHC to Shut Down... Again?

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UPDATE (March 10, 12:45am PST): With thanks to Prof. Jon Butterworth, a physicist working with a particle detector (called ATLAS) at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), I’ve been informed that the plan to shut down the LHC for an extended period of time was actually announced in early February by Dr. Steve Myers after the LHC Performance Workshop, in Chamonix, France. So rather than this being a sudden development, it is part of a planned shutdown.

Prof. Brian Cox, also an ATLAS physicist, confirmed this fact via Twitter:

There is nothing wrong with LHC – lazy journalism. Schedule announced in Jan, 18 months physics, 12 month engineering shutdown afterwards.

Cox pointed out that accelerator shutdowns are more routine than the BBC article (the source of this blog post) suggests:

ALL particle accelerators have 6 – 12 month regular shutdowns for maintenance and upgrades. That’s how complex machines are operated!

ORIGINAL POST: The epic start-up drama surrounding the world’s most powerful particle accelerator just took another painful twist. Due to unforeseeable mistakes during construction, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will need to be shut down, for up to a year, starting at the end of 2011.

This may sound like a real downer, especially after the flurry of recent successes — from a thrilling start-up to most powerful particle collisions ever achieved — but it’s hardly surprising.

Although it might be tempting to think the LHC is somehow “cursed” (or that time-traveling Higgs bosons from the future are sabotaging any attempt at discovering this elusive particle), this is what happens at the frontier of physics.

The LHC is a revolutionary piece of kit, only one will ever be built and the keenest physicist minds are trying to make this complex machine work.

“The standard phrase is that the LHC is its own prototype,” Dr. Steve Myers, director of the particle smasher, told the BBC today. “We are pushing technologies towards their limits.”

“You don’t hear about the thousands or hundreds of thousands of other areas that have gone incredibly well.”

“With a machine like the LHC, you only build one and you only build it once.”

Unfortunately, there are construction faults that could prevent the LHC from operating at full energy safely, so it looks like the year 2012 will see the LHC in repair mode again.

The accelerator tunnels need to be made safe to allow particles to blast around the accelerator ring at energies above 7TeV, an energy target that will hopefully be reached by the end of this month.

Another, less hi-tech issue surrounds the copper sheaths that surround the superconducting joints through the tunnel. The copper sheaths are a failsafe feature that have been installed to prevent sudden heating of the electromagnets that collimate and accelerate the particle “beams” during operation. Engineers are concerned that they might not be sufficient to mitigate the risk of a future breakdown.

This sudden heating is known as a “quench,” an old nemesis of the LHC. Back in 2008, during the first commissioning of the collider, a quench caused terrible damage to a section of magnets, physically ripping them from the floor.

Although this is most definitely a setback, the LHC will still be able to carry out science at energies never before harnessed by mankind for at least another 18 months. It may not be the 14TeV collision energies that the LHC has been designed to deliver, but 7TeV will still provide us with a glimpse of what this monster physics experiment can do.

Source: BBC

Image credit: CERN/LHC/Cornell

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