To the relief of physicists worldwide, the Large Hadron Collider, located 100 meters underground between Switzerland and France, produced its first collision of protons in more than two years Tuesday.
Non-operational since 2008, the $10 billion particle accelerator is the culmination of 16 years worth of research, helped in part by University of Minnesota physicists.
Tuesday’s smashup transforms the 15-year-old collider from an engineering project in test phase to the world’s largest ongoing experiment, experts say.
Two beams of protons were sent hurtling in opposite directions toward each other in a 17-mile tunnel below the Swiss-French border — one of the coldest places in the universe at slightly above absolute zero. Scientists used powerful superconducting magnets to force the two beams to cross; two of the protons collided, producing 7 trillion electron volts.
It’s bizarrely both a record high and a small amount of energy.
It’s a record on the atom-by-atom basis that physicists use to measure pure energy, said Phil Schewe, a spokesman for the American Institute of Physics. By comparison, burning wood or any other chemical reaction on an atom scale produces one electron volt. Splitting a single uranium atom in a nuclear reaction produces 1 million electron volts. This produces — on an atom-by-atom scale — 7 million times more power than a single atom in a nuclear reaction, Schewe said.
The reason this is safe has to do with the amount of particles in the collider. Tuesday’s success involved just two protons making energy, instead of pounds of uranium, Schewe said.
Physicist Michio Kaku, a professor at City College of New York, described the amount of energy produced as less than the total energy made by two mosquitoes crashing.
Kevin Klapoetke, a University graduate student who works with the Compact Muon Solenoid in France — a massive particle detector that helps reproduce what an experiment generates — said the collider could theoretically identify the origin of mass, dark matter, black holes and more.
Klapoetke works with about 15 other University physicists and was present just hours before the collision. “We were supposed to have collision six hours before it happened,” he said. “People were swarming there. There were a lot of very excited scientists over there.”
Researchers from the University have been working with the project since 1993. More than 25 University physicists were among the roughly 1,700 international scientists and engineers who designed and built specific parts for the accelerator on behalf of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
University physicists helped design the accelerator and the CMS. The LHC itself was constructed by CERN.
In fall 2008, a helium leak caused the LHC to shut down, putting the project on hold. “It was a very depressing moment,” said University assistant physics professor Jeremiah Mans. “But now we’re really there,” he said.
“These experiments and this collider are going to take the leadership in the world in really answering these questions.”
The collision marks the beginning of up to 24 months of experiments CERN will run with the LHC. The objective is to generate enough data to make significant advances across a wide range of fields in physics.
The LHC gained attention and garnered fear a few years ago when a theory emerged stating the LHC could create a black hole. No evidence has been found supporting this.
“We already have some very basic results,” said Abraham DeBenedetti, a seventh-year graduate student working at the Twin Cities campus. “We’ve rediscovered particles we discovered a long time ago, and we have to spend a little bit of time reconfirming what we know.”
Mans, DeBenedetti and Klapoetke will continue to work with the results generated by the LHC and will travel to Geneva at some point this summer.
“We opened a door into a treasure trove of deeper and new insights. But it’s a big, dark room, and at this point our flashlights are not that bright,” Mans said. “First, we’re going to have to feel our way around and see the big features, and we’ll start to see the details as our flashlight gets brighter.”
-The Associated Press contributed to this report.