Large Hadron Collider Circulates Proton Beam

For the first time since September 2008, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has circulated a beam of protons fully around its 17 mile-long ring of supercooled electromagnets. The last time this happened was shortly before the LHC suffered a devastating "quench" that released so much energy, several of the large magnets 100 meters below the [...]

For the first time since September 2008, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has circulated a beam of protons fully around its 17 mile-long ring of supercooled electromagnets.

The last time this happened was shortly before the LHC suffered a devastating "quench" that released so much energy, several of the large magnets 100 meters below the French-Swiss border were ripped from the ground. Over a ton of liquid helium was vented into the tunnel. Fortunately no one was injured, but it has taken CERN engineers (European Organization for Nuclear Research) 14 months to repair the damage.

Today it would appear that everything is running smoothly, and although the first beam to circulate at about 6 a.m. GMT (1 a.m. ET) Saturday morning is not stable (i.e. it cannot be used for the LHC's main purpose, particle collisions), it's hoped that future beams will be.

The "beams" of protons consist of 1 meter long "packets" of billions of protons forced together by the 1,200 powerful magnets.

Although this first circulation isn't fast, eventually the packets of protons will be travelling close to the speed of light.

At strategic points around the accelerator ring, counter-rotating beams will be forced to cross paths creating head-on collisions. When the colliding beams make contact, the impact will be so energetic that we will briefly have a glimpse of the energy conditions that existed moments after the Big Bang, 13.73 billion years ago.

At that moment, exotic particles that science hasn't even predicted could make an appearance. But primarily, scientists are hunting for the Higgs boson - a theoretical particle that gives everything in the universe mass. Micro-black holes could even appear for very short periods after the impact.

Although the LHC was built primarily to track down the Higgs particle, it's non-discovery would be just as exciting, if not more so.

"Actually I am not really a big Higgs fan, but something has to be doing the job of making the electromagnetic force look so different from the weak force at everyday energies," said Prof. Jonathan Butterworth an experimental particle physicist working with the ATLAS detector during an interview with Discovery News.

"We know at higher energies they look much more similar, and the difference is the mass of the force carriers. If it's not the Higgs doing it, it is something more exotic, and our theories are wrong. That would be exciting.

"But the bottom line is, ATLAS will either find the Higgs, or prove that it's not there and the Standard Model is wrong."

Image credit: CERN/LHC