Mad scientists plan an even bigger bang with a bigger Collider

14 Sep 2008

If you thought the kerfuffle over the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) this week and the threat of an Earth-sucking black hole was bad, then think again because scientists are planning an even bigger particle-smashing machine some 40 to 50 times larger.

The LHC at CERN has only just kicked into action and the large-scale experiments which a certain group of scientists fear could bring about the word’s demise will take place over the coming weeks and months.

But results-hungry scientists don’t intend to stop there and are planning a massive particle collider called the International Linear Collider that will make the LHC seem like a child’s toy.

Most people would believe that the LHC is the only such machine in the world but other efforts such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre and Tevatron, a circular particle accelerator in Illinois, have been with us for some time.

In August 2004, the International Technology Recommendation Panel (ITRP) recommended a Superconducing RF technology for the next major accelerator, International Linear Collider (LLC).

The ILC will have a collision energy of 500 GeV (electron volts) and will collide electrons with positrons along a 30-40km tunnel.

This compares to the LHC, where from a 27km tunnel located 300 feet underground beneath Switzerland and France, the massive Hadron Collider slams together particles with a collision energy of 700 GeV to find the elusive Higgs Boson, or ‘God Particle’.

The host country for the ILC has not yet been chosen but it is planned to have the machine constructed by late 2010. The new machine will cost an estimated US$7bn to build, from which the host country would have to pay US$1.5bn towards the construction.

So far an estimated US$150m has been spent on the machine, nick-named ‘Einstein’s Telescope’.

The electron source for the ILC will use 2-nanosecond laser light pulses to eject electrons from a photocathode.

Another competitor in scale to the ILC, the Compact Linear Collider (CLIC), is being proposed to be built at CERN following the LHC experiments.

Even if scientists at the LHC on the Swiss-French border do discover the Higgs Boson, it will raise even more questions than answers and they will need a more capable machine to discover the answer to questions of matter and what happened after the Big Bang that created the universe as we know it.

On Wednesday, the first beam in the LHC was successfully steered around the full 27km of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator at 10.28 in the morning. The historic event marks a key moment in the transition from over two decades of preparation to a new era of scientific discovery.

“It’s a fantastic moment,” said LHC project leader Lyn Evans. “We can now look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.”

Once colliding beams have been established, there will be a period of measurement and calibration for the LHC’s four major experiments, and new results could start to appear in around a year. Experiments at the LHC will allow physicists to complete a journey that started with Newton’s description of gravity.

Gravity acts on mass, but so far science has been unable to explain the mechanism that generates mass. Experiments at the LHC will provide the answer. LHC experiments will also try to probe the mysterious dark matter of the universe – visible matter seems to account for just 5pc of what must exist, while about a quarter is believed to be dark matter.

They will investigate the reason for nature’s preference for matter over anti-matter, and they will probe matter as it existed at the very beginning of time.

“The LHC is a discovery machine,” said CERN director general Robert Aymar. “Its research programme has the potential to change our view of the universe profoundly, continuing a tradition of human curiosity that’s as old as mankind itself.”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years