Sometimes, scientists need a reason to go fast. Interestingly enough, it’s not just for the fun of it and it’s not just to satisfy some deep-seated need for speed. Particle acceleration is an important part of the scientific process in many different disciplines. In science, a particle accelerator is a machine designed to increase the speed of charged particles and then channel those particles into a beam. In the research process, scientists will channel the beam of particles toward a target so that they can make observations on the atoms, the molecules, the laws of physics, and how they’re all impacted by the beam.
One such example of a particle accelerator is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). As a matter of fact, the LHC functions as the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. But what is the purpose of the LHC? What does it do, and what are its goals for the future? Let’s break it all down below.
What is the Large Hadron Collider?
The Large Hadron Collider functions as the biggest and highest-energy creation of its kind. At 17 miles in circumference and nearly 600 feet (or 100 meters) below the ground, the LHC is a specific kind of particle accelerator called a collider. This means that the LHC smashes two particle beams together and then scientists observe the results. After the collision, scientists observe the atoms, molecules, and the laws of physics at play.
It was built between the years of 1998 and 2008 with the help of over 10,000 scientists, more than 100 countries, and countless universities and labs the world over. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN) built the accelerator near Geneva, right underneath the border between France and Switzerland.
CERN’s LHC has four different crossing points throughout its 17 miles. These crossing points are where the collisions of accelerated particles occur. Seven different detectors are placed around these crossing points, each specially designed to observe and detect a specific phenomenon.
What Does the Large Hadron Collider Do?
The Large Hadron Collider functions as a complex series of machines, each with an increasing amount of energy. In the early 1980s, scientists began contemplating what a successor to the Large Electron-Positron Collider might look like (and the LEP wasn’t even up and running yet!). These early inklings about the LHC remained on the back burner until late 1994 and early 1995 when the CERN Council moved to begin planning. By the end of 1995, they had a technical design report. By 1998, construction began.
But what exactly does the Large Hadron Collider do? While conspiracy theorists would like you to believe its purpose is to open up a portal to another world, it’s actually much more grounded than that. Simply put, the LHC facilitates proton beam collisions. Beyond this, the LHC also allows for the acceleration of heavy ion beams.
The LHC’s goal is to allow physicists to test the predictions of different theories of particle physics. Colliders like the LHC are made to speed up particles to the highest kinetic energy possible and then allow them to collide with other particles. Taking a look at the aftermath of these collisions allows scientists to examine the subatomic world’s structure and, to a greater extent, the very laws of nature themselves. (No portal necessary.)
What is the Purpose of the Large Hadron Collider?
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider might not sound like anything all that important in the grand scheme of things, but the truth is that the LHC exists to find the answers to some of the most fundamental open questions in the field of physics. The discoveries made by the LHC have the potential to solve some of the longest unanswered questions about space and time, quantum mechanics, and even general relativity.
Some of the specific questions scientists hope to answer are as follows.
Where Does Mass Originate From?
In an attempt to make discoveries on the origin of mass, scientists hope the LHC will allow them to further examine the theory of the Higgs boson — the particle that gives mass.
Is There Evidence of Supersymmetry?
Supersymmetry is a theory that suggests the standard particles currently known to man are actually trumped by the possible existence of much bigger particles. If the LHC can find evidence of supersymmetry, it could help lead to fundamental forces being unified.
Where is All the Antimatter?
If both matter and antimatter were created during the Big Bang, then why is there more matter than antimatter? We know that energy cannot be created or destroyed, so if this is true of energy, it must be true of matter and antimatter. Perhaps the LHC can help uncover more to this theory.
Where do Dark Matter and Dark Energy Originate From?
The particles scientists know and observe today only make up about 4% of the known universe. There’s a tireless search for the particles behind dark matter and dark energy, and the LHC could help unlock that search — not to mention research on the origin of the black hole and the wormhole.
What Has the Large Hadron Collider Accomplished So Far?
Since its completion in 2008, the Large Hadron Collider has had two successful runs: One between 2010 and 2013, and another between 2015 and 2018. Each of these two runs came with its own set of discoveries and accomplishments.
First Run (2010-2013)
- Set the world record for beam intensity
- Facilitated the first collisions at 8 tetra-electronvolts (TeV)
- Discovery of the Higgs boson
- Achieved more than a million billion collisions
Second Run (2015-2018)
- Facilitated the first collisions at 13 TeV
- Collided xenon ions in an attempt to crack the mystery surrounding quark-gluon plasma
- Further explored the Higgs boson
- Achieved more than 16 million billion collisions
Where Does the Large Hadron Collider Go From Here?
While its two runs from 2010-2013 and 2015-2018 are in the books, the Large Hadron Collider just began the third run in April of 2022. This third run is expected to be the longest one yet for the LHC, stretching all the way to 2026. What are the goals for this third run?
Third Run (2022-2026)
- Further research on quark-gluon plasma
- Additional research on the Higgs boson
- Continued research on the subatomic laws of physics
- More research on the origins of the black hole and the wormhole
After the conclusion of the third run in 2026, CERN plans to upgrade the LHC with a high-luminosity upgrade. This will allow them to increase to 14 TeV or more, not to mention allowing scientists the opportunity to unlock even rarer discoveries and measurements. (And, if those conspiracy theorists are to be believed, perhaps even open up a portal to another world?)