Atom-smashing research stalled |

Atom-smashing research stalled

Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado

GENEVA ” Scientists expect startup glitches in the massive, complex machines they use to smash atoms.

But the unique qualities of the world’s largest particle collider mean that the meltdown of a small electrical connection could delay its groundbreaking research until next year, scientists said Sunday.

Because the Large Hadron Collider operates at near absolute zero ” colder than outer space ” the damaged area must be warmed to a temperature where humans can work. That takes about a month. Then it has to be re-chilled for another month.

As a result, the equipment may not be running again before the planned shutdown of the equipment for the winter to reduce electricity costs. That means Friday’s meltdown could end up putting off high-energy collisions of particles ” the machine’s ultimate objective ” until 2009.

“Hopefully we’ll come online and go quickly to full energy a few months into 2009 so in the long term, this may not end up being such a large delay in the physics program,” Seth Zenz, a graduate student from the University of California, wrote on the site of the U.S. physicists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN.

“It’s obviously a short-term disappointment, though, and a lost opportunity,” he wrote.

CERN spokesman James Gillies said the repair operation will last until close to the usual winter shutdown time at the end of November. There has been some discussion that the new equipment could operate through the winter, but no decision has been made, he said.

At the Sept. 10 launch of the collider, beams of protons from the nuclei of atoms were fired first at the speed of light in a clockwise direction though a fire-hose-sized tube in the tunnel. Then proton beams were fired in the counterclockwise tube.

A transformer failed outside the cold zone about 36 hours after the collider’s launch. That was repaired and the machine was ready again a week after it was shut down.

But the goal of the LHC ” shattering protons to reveal more about how the tiniest particles were first created ” was still weeks away because the equipment has to be gradually brought to the higher energies possible at full power.

“This was the last circuit of the LHC to be tested at high current before operations,” Gillies said. “There are an awful lot of these connections between wires in the machine. They all have to be very well done so that they don’t stop superconducting, and what appears to have happened is that this connection stopped being superconducting.”

Superconductivity ” the ability to conduct electricity without any resistance in some metals at low temperatures” allows for much greater efficiency in operating the electromagnets that guide the proton beams.

Without the superconducting, resistance builds up in the wires, causing them to overheat, he explained.

“That’s what we think happened,” Gillies said. “This piece of wire heated up, melted, and that led to a mechanical failure.”

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