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CERN wants to build the biggest, baddest particle collider ever

CERN wants to build the biggest, baddest particle collider ever


Larger than life

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metal tube going through long metal hallway
Artist’s illustration of Future Circular Collider tunnel.

Today, the research center that brought us Nobel Prize-winning news of incomprehensibly tiny particles announced its plans to get a whole lot bigger.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, already has the largest, most powerful particle accelerator in the world, called the Large Hadron Collider, but today it published a report that looks into the design of its larger, and more powerful potential successor, the Future Circular Collider.

The Large Hadron Collider is what was used to discover the subatomic particle called the Higgs boson back in 2012, and had been host to many other new discoveries. But to study even more elusive aspects of the universe, some physicists think that a newer, bigger tool is needed.

circles of increasing size laid over a map of Geneva
An illustration showing the size comparison of the LHC and FCC.

The Large Hadron Collider is 16.6 miles around, but its replacement could have a circumference of over 62 miles. That’s large enough to surround the entire city of Geneva.

Particle accelerators need that size to get tiny bits of atoms up to speeds that approach the speed of light before they are slammed together. The resulting collisions give researchers a better understanding of the laws of physics. The Future Circular Collider, with its more powerful machinery and longer tunnel, will be able to observe particles that remain invisible to current technology.

The Large Hadron Collider is expected to be in operation until at least 2035. But the scale of building its successor is so massive that planning started early. The Large Hadron Collider concept was introduced in 1984, approved in 1994, and didn’t open until 2009. From the start of its implementation to its last experiment, the Future Circular Collider’s timeline is expected to stretch over seven decades.

The report issued today is the conceptual design for the Future Circular Collider, a four-volume work that took 1,300 scientists five years to write. It lays out several potential designs for the future collider that particle physicists will consider as they set goals for their field of research over the next few years.

That’s large enough to surround the entire city of Geneva

The LHC has already given researchers a lot to work with, but it has also left them with mysteries. There is a planned upgrade to the LHC in the works, but the researchers would still like to get a better understanding of antimatter, understand more about the nature of dark matter and where it can be found, and figure out why the Higgs boson was so much lighter than they thought it would be. Those are only questions that can be answered with a bigger machine.

The design for the Future Collision Collider lays out a few different potential aspects of the facility. There’s the huge tunnel, which will let the thin beams of particles travel without having to navigate curves that are quite as tight (relatively) as the LHC’s. Then there’s a collider called a lepton collider which would, well, smash particles called leptons together. It could potentially give researchers more accurate measurements of the Higgs and other particles that scientists are just starting to understand. There’s also another larger hadron collider that would be able to smash particles together at even higher energies.

According to a CERN release, the tunnel would cost about 5 billion Euros to build, plus another 4 billion for the initial lepton collider that could get going in 2040, and an additional 15 billion for the hadron collider that would replace the first collider and be operational sometime around 2050. Scientists took the same approach with the LHC, replacing CERN’s Large Electron–Positron collider inside the same tunnel.

Those are large amounts of money, and as Pallab Ghosh at the BBC reports, there are other researchers who would prefer to see that money be invested in medical advances, or combating climate change. Money for CERN and its projects comes from its 22 Member States and other countries and institutions that use the facilities.

The designers of the project are aware of the astronomical sums. In a statement issued today, the International Advisory Committee for the Future Circular Collider recommended that future developments be focused on “timelines, performance, and cost.”

Many physicists, whose work relies on these large tools, think the investment of time and money is worth it, and point to the Future Circular Collider as a way of expanding humanity’s understanding of our universe.

The head of CERN, Fabiola Gianotti, said that the proposed designs for the Future Circular Collider had the potential to “improve our knowledge of fundamental physics and to advance many technologies with a broad impact on society.”

In a video produced by CERN (see above) Nobel Prize winner Peter Higgs (yep, that Higgs) says, “We’ve scratched the surface, but we have clearly much more to discover.”