A short circuit has stalled the highly-anticipated relaunch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the powerful machine that could help explain the fundamental structures of the universe. The LHC, which was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It has not been used since the 2012 discovery of the Higgs Boson, nicknamed the “God particle” due to the exciting possibility that it could be responsible for all the mass in the universe.
The LHC has since been resting and undergoing repairs while a team worked to increase the power level from 8 TeV to 13 TeV. Major upgrades include replacing 18 of the LHC’s 1,232 superconducting dipole magnets, which steer the particle beams around the accelerator, as well as fitting over 10,000 electrical interconnections between the magnets with splices to divert the 11,000 amp current in case of a fault. New radiation-resistant electronics have also been added, as well as upgrades to the cryogenics and vacuum systems. These improvements will make the LHC capable of smashing particles together at greater speeds, which will help uncover new data about the origin of dark matter, the weakness of gravity, and why nature prefers matter to antimatter.
However, the mysteries of the universe will have to wait, since the machine is currently on hold. On March 21, the CERN team discovered an intermittent short circuit found in one of the LHC’s magnet circuits. Although this requires a relatively simple repair, it will take a few weeks because the short circuit occurred in a cold section of the machine, so engineers will need enough time to warm it up and then cool it back down. In the LHC, electric fields and radiofrequency cavities accelerate particles, while powerful magnets focus or steer the particle beams. The electromagnets are built from coils of special electric cable that operates in a superconducting state which requires chilling the magnets to ‑271.3°C – a temperature colder than outer space. A repair that would have taken hours in a warm machine will take weeks in the cryogenic LHC. But let’s not lose perspective. As CERN director general Rolf Heuer said, “In the grand scheme of things, a few weeks delay in humankind’s quest to understand our universe is little more than the blink of an eye.”