Broken Magnet Highlights Largest Collider's Engineering Challenges

Updated June 6, 2007

Editor's note: The original April 13, 2007, story has been updated to reflect the official decision to delay the initial "test drive" of the Large Hadron Collider due to technical glitches.

Even at the world's soon-to-be largest particle accelerator—a device that promises to push the boundaries of physics—scientists need to be mindful of one of the most fundamental laws in the universe: Murphy's Law.

In late March, a scant few months before the much anticipated Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was slated to go online, a small but crucial part of the machine broke with a bang.

The accident happened as a team was testing a set of magnets that will steer protons—tiny positively charged particles found in every atom's nucleus—around the accelerator to nearly the speed of light.

The test was meant to simulate what could happen in emergency situations, when gas might build up to high pressures inside the accelerator.

When the pressure inside got high, it snapped supports holding the magnets, and gas burst out of the tube, stirring up a cloud of dust. No one was hurt, but the dramatic failure revealed a design flaw in the massive machine.

"We were busy solving hard problems, and somehow an easy one slipped past us," said Jim Strait of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois.

Fermilab was responsible for the part that failed in the tests, and they're now scrambling to work out a solution and put it in place as quickly as possible.

The accident—along with a handful of other technical glitches—will delay the initial "test drive" of the full accelerator but hopefully not its scheduled startup in 2008.

"We now intend to make the tests, which will allow the technicians to drive the machine, in late April or early May [next year] and then to go into full startup as planned by next summer," James Gillies, a project spokesperson, told the Reuters news service.

High Energy, High Speed

Still, scientists are thankful that they caught the problem before the machine actually powered up.

Continued on Next Page >>




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