GENEVA — The international organization that runs the world’s largest atom smasher has begun work on a major upgrade to improve chances for more discoveries into our universe’s fundamental properties.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN, is outfitting its Large Hadron Collider to operate in a high-luminosity mode from 2026 on.
Luminosity refers to the number of collisions among sub-atomic particles. The higher the luminosity, the more data becomes available. The upgrades will increase the number of proton collisions for experiments.
As the world’s top particle physics lab, CERN started colliding particles in 2010. Its collider, or LHC, was designed to push bunches of protons in opposite directions at close to the speed of light so they collide at four points. The aim is to recreate conditions a split second after the Big Bang, which scientists theorize was the massive explosion that created the universe.
The collisions generate new particles that detectors measure; scientists then analyze the collisions.
During its first run, the particle accelerator was used to discover in 2012 the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson — commonly referred to in non-scientific circles as the “God particle” — without which particles would not hold together and there would be no matter.
The LHC and teams of thousands of CERN-based scientists helped Peter Higgs and François Englert win the Nobel Prize in 2013 by proving their theories right about the predicted Higgs boson.
Higgs and others in the 1960s had envisioned an energy field where particles interact with a key particle, which became called the Higgs boson. The theory helped explain how subatomic particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons were themselves formed.
The LHC can now produce up to 1 billion proton-on-proton collisions per second. CERN officials said the high-luminosity improvements to the 27-kilometer collider, which lies beneath the ground along the Swiss-French border near Geneva, will increase that number — its luminosity — by a factor of between five and seven. That will allow about 10 times more data to be accumulated between 2026 and 2036.
The upgrades involve constructing and installing many new hardware elements — high-tech components such as magnets, collimators and radio-frequency cavities — along more than 1.2 kilometers of the LHC.
“This means that physicists will be able to investigate rare phenomena and make more accurate measurements,” CERN said in a statement.
“For example, the LHC allowed physicists to unearth the Higgs boson in 2012, thereby making great progress in understanding how particles acquire their mass,” it said. “The HL-LHC (high luminosity-LHC) upgrade will allow the Higgs boson’s properties to be defined more accurately, and to measure with increased precision how it is produced, how it decays and how it interacts with other particles.”
Other areas of physics to be explored using the high luminosity upgrade include supersymmetry and extra dimensions. They are subjects that go beyond the so-called standard model of particle physics, which describes only about 5 percent of the universe.
CERN’s Director-General Fabiola Gianotti said the upgrades will extend the LHC “beyond its initial mission, bringing new opportunities for discovery, measuring the properties of particles such as the Higgs boson with greater precision, and exploring the fundamental constituents of the universe ever more profoundly.”