Big blow as LHC knocked out of action for a year

24 Sep 2008

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Instead of recreating a Big Bang, scientists the globe over who were anticipating a new era in scientific discovery instead got a Big Blow yesterday, when it emerged CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be out of action until next year.

Last week it emerged that a 30-tonne power transformer which helps run the massive LHC at CERN on the French-Swiss border malfunctioned, affecting the cooling system on the world’s largest scientific experiment.

Further complications arose when a helium leak was discovered. Subsequent investigations into sector 3-4 of the 27km tunnel have indicated that the most likely cause of the incident was a faulty electrical connection between two of the accelerator’s magnets.

Before a full understanding of the incident can be established, however, the sector has to be brought to room temperature and the magnets involved opened up for inspection. This will take three to four weeks.

“Coming immediately after the very successful start of the LHC operation on 10 September, this is undoubtedly a psychological blow,” said CERN director general, Robert Aymar.

“Nevertheless, the success of the LHC’s first operation with beam is testimony to years of painstaking preparation and the skill of the 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 rigour and application.”

The time necessary for the investigation and repairs precludes a restart before CERN’s obligatory winter maintenance period, bringing the date for restart of the accelerator complex to early spring 2009. LHC beams will then follow.

“The LHC is a very complex instrument, huge in scale and pushing technological limits in many areas,” said Peter Limon, who was responsible for commissioning the world’s first large-scale superconducting accelerator, the Tevatron at Fermilab in the US.

“Events occur from time to time that temporarily stop operations, for shorter or longer periods, especially during the early phases,” Limon observed.

The US$8.3bn LHC project has attracted global attention and represents not only the cutting-edge of science but also that of supercomputing. Around 300 data centres in 50 countries have been networked together into a grid to begin processing the data as soon as the LHC gets to work.

It is believed the biggest concentration is the 80,000 PCs in a server farm at CERN.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: section of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN on the Swiss/French border (image courtesy of CERN)

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.