End of CERN shutdown opens new possibilities for particle physics

It seems as though it would be hard to top discovering a new particle, and contributing to a Nobel prize, but that’s exactly what scientists at CERN are hoping to do now that ‘Long Shutdown 1’ (LS1) is coming to an end. Some of Europe’s finest minds, including many from the UK, are eagerly anticipating the chance to harness the improved facilities as they come online over the next few months. Two years of downtime for the accelerators have been used as an opportunity for consolidation and maintenance, but there have also been some major upgrades that will see the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at even higher energies next year. Particle collisions at higher energies can create heavier particles, which will never have been seen before.

The LHC may capture most headlines, but it’s only one of many extraordinary facilities at CERN that consistently drive new discoveries and deliver exciting science. The accelerator complex has been likened to a five-speed gearbox, enabling protons and ions to reach incredible, sometimes near-light speeds and, through their collisions, generating fresh insights into the fundamental structure of the Universe. But achieving ever-higher energy intensities means pushing hardware beyond its original specifications and in some cases replacing it altogether – hence the need for the shutdown.

The Proton Synchrotron has already been restarted, following modifications to the radio frequency (RF) cavities used to accelerate particle beams, plus the installation of extra shielding, a new ventilation system and a new beam extraction system to ensure beams are delivered more cleanly. “It’s gone better than I expected!” says Steve Hancock, who has years of experience working at the facility. At the Proton Synchrotron Booster, meanwhile, obsolete electronics have been replaced and a round of extensive modifications has equipped the facility to cope with the range of beam intensities demanded by future experiments.

Activity on the linear accelerators (‘Linacs’) has focused on the new Linac4, due to come on line in 2018. Linac4 has now, for instance, produced a test beam generating an impressive 3 million electronvolts and has been moved to a purpose-built tunnel ready for the next phase of installation. Work has demanded development of world-leading expertise in plasma diagnostics and negative hydrogen ion sources. “Other labs are copying our ideas,” notes Richard Scrivens, part of the Linac team.

These examples of a multitude of improvements underline how CERN has remained a hive of energy and endeavour throughout the shutdown – setting the stage for the next chapter in its mission to unravel key questions about the nature of existence. And co-ordinated by STFC, the UK’s membership of CERN will continue to give UK scientists first-hand access to these unique facilities and the many remarkable experiments they host.

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