Canadians play key roles in atom smasher success
Geoff Nixon, CTV.ca News
Published Saturday, November 28, 2009 8:21AM EST
As the Large Hadron Collider prepares for full-time operation at an underground site near Geneva, Canadians continue to play key roles in harnessing the $10-billion machine's potential for unlocking secrets about the makeup of matter.
The massive particle accelerator -- which sends high-speed protons racing around a tunnel that measures nearly 27 kilometres in circumference -- is finally up and running after months of delays. It was first started up in September 2008, but an electrical fault caused a premature end to its initial debut.
The people at the helm of the world's largest atom smasher say they don't expect any further problems, after a year-long delay and $40 million worth of repairs and improvements.
"The LHC is a far better understood machine than it was a year ago," Steve Myers, the director for accelerators at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), said recently.
"We've learned from our experience, and engineered the technology that allows us to move on. That's how progress is made."
Days ago, the LHC was switched back on, a major step towards getting the machine's much anticipated particle collision experiments underway.
And as the weeks go by in this year and next, scientists will slowly raise the energy of the proton beam inside the accelerator, to the point where it will eventually reach 7 TeV (trillion electron volts).
At present, the Chicago-area Tevatron operates at 1 TeV and is the most powerful collider in operation. But the LHC will soon take that title once it exceeds the 1 TeV mark, likely by the end of this year.
By the first two months of 2010, scientists plan to start testing out the LHC's atom-smashing prowess by deliberately smashing together protons together to learn more about their fundamental properties.
Each of the tens of millions of collisions that occur each second inside the accelerator are recorded by sophisticated and massive, cathedral-sized detectors, which will provide scientists with that data. And Canadians have helped to make sure that data can be accurately observed, collected and distributed to the worldwide scientific community.
Canadian Jeffrey Joyce was inside the control room at CERN only days ago, presenting a review of one of the LHC Beam Interlock System -- one of the two main critical safety systems for the atom smasher.
Joyce, co-founder of the Vancouver-based Critical Systems Labs Inc., is typically involved in looking at many types of systems that depend on safety-critical software, such as rail-signalling and air traffic control systems, or medical devices.
The safety system for the LHC, however, was something altogether different.
"It's not like turning off a flashlight," Joyce said in a recent telephone interview from his Vancouver office. "You have this huge amount of energy you have to dump somewhere."
The Beam Interlock System, Joyce explained, is what helps shut down the powerful beam of protons in an emergency, so that none of the equipment gets damaged.
Joyce said the system functions like "a huge, very fast, off-switch", which uses magnets to redirect the high-energy beam of protons out of the accelerator tunnel and into a graphite block. It all happens in about 100 microseconds -- or about one-ten thousandth of a single second.
Joyce made contacts at CERN a few years ago when he was completing some work at a Geneva airport. And when the LHC's safety system needed checking, its masters came looking for expertise from Joyce and another Canadian colleague who performed the review.
The scale of the LHC project is a spectacle in itself, he said, with each one of its massive particle detectors looking "like something right out of Star Wars."
Joyce is just one of dozens of Canadians with connections to the LHC.
University of Victoria physics professor Robert McPherson estimates that some 200 Canadians are currently working on the LHC and its related ATLAS particle physics detector -- a 7,000-tonne, 92-metre device, one of a small number of experiments built for the LHC.
At least 150 of these Canadian professors, researchers, engineers, technicians and graduate students, are working on the LHC and ATLAS on a full-time basis.
In fact, Canada has contributed tens of millions of dollars since the idea for the LHC was first hatched more than 20 years ago, said McPherson, who also serves as spokesperson for the ATLAS Canada collaboration.
"I think very much our involvement has been underplayed," McPherson during a telephone interview from Victoria, B.C.
To date, McPherson said Canadians have chipped in some $40 million into the LHC accelerator, $20 million for the hardware contained in the ATLAS detector and another $30 million for the computing resources that scientists will use to analyze the data that LHC will produce through its collision experiments.
With up to 40 million collisions per second taking place inside the fully-active LHC, McPherson said the amount of data produced by the experiments is immense -- estimated to be as high as 1 million Gigabytes each year -- so large that it has to be spread out among computers across the world. Canada will host one-tenth of that data.
Richard Teuscher, a Canadian scientist based at CERN's Geneva office, says that compiling 1 million Gigabytes worth of annual data, would be the equivalent to a stack of DVDs that would fill the CN Tower each year.
The worldwide scientific community expects "a great breakthrough in our understanding of matter," from the experiments that will be possible through the LHC, McPherson said.
Joyce said the science that the LHC is set to probe will help in "understanding questions of pure science."
"I'm quite excited to watch what's going to come out of there," said Joyce.
Background on the LHC
The Large Hadron Collider has been in the works for about 25 years.
In 1984, the plan was hatched for the LHC at a symposium in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Ten years later, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN) approved the project in December 1994.
Over the next 15 years, the nearly 27-kilometre long unit was built up at a site that straddles the French and Swiss borders, at an underground site near Geneva.
The previous CERN particle collider -- the Large Electron-Positron Collider -- had to be dismantled in order to build the LHC, meaning workers had to evacuate 40,000 tonnes of material to move forward. This process began in December 2000 and ended in February 2002.
Because the LHC is much larger than its predecessor, more ground had to be excavated to make room for the incoming atom smasher. Excavation continued until March 2003, but the full construction of the LHC wouldn't be complete until 2008.
Renilde Vanden Broeck, a member of the CERN press office, confirmed for CTV.ca that more than 6,600 international suppliers and contractors were involving in the building and development of the $10-billion LHC accelerator itself.
But that number does not include the people who worked on the detectors, nor the subcontractors who helped with the LHC, he said.
The massive ATLAS detector had collaborators from more than 37 countries and 169 institutions, according to figures provided to CTV.ca by Teuscher. Eleven Canadian universities and institutions worked on ATLAS at various stages.
A diagram that can be viewed on Teuscher's website shows the 92-metre tall ATLAS stands approximately as tall as the top of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
With files from The Associated Press