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1st May 2024

Celebrating 70 years of science at CERN

As the 70th anniversary of CERN approaches, we investigate the origins and history of the organisation whilst asking questions about the future of the laboratory; what’s next? And how can it align its ambition for research with the modern world’s needs for sustainability?  
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Celebrating 70 years of science at CERN
Credit: Torbjorn Toby Jorgensen @ Wikimedia Commons

Origins of CERN 

At the end of the Second World War and the dawn of the Cold War, European scientific prowess began to diminish in comparison to the giants of the US and USSR. In order to reduce the ‘brain-drain’ of physicists from Europe and restore European science to the heights it achieved pre-war, “Conseil European pour la Recherché Nucleaire” or CERN officially started in 1954. Construction then began for the accelerator complex in the Meryin countryside, just outside Geneva.  

CERN’s mission is to perform research into the nature of the universe on the smallest scales, whilst creating an international collaborative community between the twelve founding member states of CERN. This membership has since extended to include 23 member states, extending beyond the borders of the continent of Europe. 

Over 600 institutions and universities across the world use CERN’s facilities to undertake cutting-edge research. The University of Manchester Physics Department has significant involvement in the experiments at CERN, working across seven experiments and projects at the laboratory, ATLAS, LHCb, FCC, HL-LHC, ISOLDE, nTOF, and FASER, with activities ranging from design and construction to analysis.  

Scientific Research  

The Large Hadron collider at CERN
Credit: Maximilien Brice (CERN) @ Wikimedia Commons

The most famous experiment at CERN is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27 km tunnel buried 100m under Lake Geneva that accelerates protons almost to the speed of light. These proton beams are then collided at one of four detection points with a collision energy of 13 TeV. It is the largest, most powerful, and energetic collider in the world. The four detectors, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb, and ALICE, are effectively large cameras that detect sub-atomic particles produced in these collisions and provide data ready for analysis by physicists all over the world.  

The LHC together with its predecessor the Large Electron Positron collider (LEP), which collided electrons and their anti-particle, positrons, in the same tunnel as the LHC, have worked to measure and test the standard model of particle physics. The standard model is the fundamental theory of the universe, mathematically describing all of the sub-atomic particles that form our universe and the forces that act between them. 

From the discovery of the W and Z bosons at LEP in 1983 to the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 at CMS and ATLAS, CERN has been crucial to the experimental testing of this theory and developing our understanding of the sub-atomic world.  

Accelerating towards the future

There is lots of evidence that the standard model, despite its accuracy, does not provide a complete understanding of the universe. For example, visible matter only makes up 5% of the Universe whilst the other 95% is composed of dark matter and dark energy, neither of which are described in the standard model. There exist many theories ‘beyond the standard model’ which could provide the answers to these problems. A key aim of many experiments at CERN is to hunt for evidence of this ‘new physics’.  

Many ‘beyond the standard model’ theories predict the existence of new undiscovered particles with very large masses. In order to produce these particles experimentally and find evidence for their existence, physicists require collision energies even larger than the LHC’s 13 TeV. 

The Future Circular Collider (FCC) is the 21-billion-euro proposal for a new 91 km-long collider at CERN. The proposal is to first use this FCC as an electron-positron collider (like LEP) coming online in the mid 2040’s and then being upgraded to a hadron collider, using the same tunnel, extending its operation for another 15 years. By the end of its lifetime the aim is to achieve collisions of up to 100 TeV.  

In addition to its physics output, CERN has also created many engineering advances; the world wide web was invented at CERN in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee as a method to share results and data at the collaboration, advances in accelerator technology achieved at CERN have direct applications to medical technologies such as proton beam therapy to treat cancer and many many more.  

Sustainability, a cause for conCERN?  

The importance of investment into the research conducted at CERN is obvious; however, this should not prevent discussions of how the laboratory can utilise funding and resources more sustainably within its research.  

One key area for focus is the energy consumption of the LHC. The total consumption at CERN is 1.3 TWh per year – for reference Geneva uses 3 TWh per year. This is a significant amount of yearly electrical energy consumption. As a result, the LHC performs a shut-down during the winter period in order to increase the availability of electrical energy in the grid for Geneva during winter when energy requirements rise. Due to the cost of energy crisis in Europe, the operation of the LHC was reduced by 20% in 2023.

One obvious improvement would be a move to using 100% renewable energy. CERN could follow the example set by other smaller accelerator complexes around the world – one example is the SESAME light source in Jordan, which uses its own solar power plant to power its collider. However, the LHC is considerably larger and would require research and investment of a much greater scale to make this move. Another active area of research is accelerator technology. At the moment, supercooled magnets are utilised to accelerate the beams, the cooling of which consumes a large amount of energy. Novel techniques, such as using plasmas, could work to increase the efficiency of the accelerator tunnel, reducing the power requirements. 

Aside from the collider experiments, a large chunk of the energy consumption at CERN comes from  the worldwide computing grid used to analyse data produced within the LHC collisions. This is where the raw electronic pulses and signals are interpreted and reconstructed into a huge data file – a sophisticated data sheet.

The CPU and energy required to reconstruct collision events ready for analysis is significant, requiring CERN’s vast computing grid in combination with other grids across the globe. It would be impossible to reconstruct all the collisions recorded at the LHC experiments. To handle this the detectors employ a ‘trigger’ –  a multi-stage selection process that aims to only keep the potentially interesting collisions. This  often results in a huge proportion of event data being thrown away.  

Pioneering research within the ATLAS collaboration is working on using this ‘trigger-level’ data, available before selection and reconstruction, to perform high-precision analysis. This technique is called ‘real-time analysis’ and could represent an incredibly powerful tool to search for extremely rare processes at the LHC and beyond. This would work to reduce the cost and energy needed for full event reconstructions whilst also improving the sustainability and usage of data collected at collider experiments.  

Over the last 70 years, CERN has pioneered research into the fundamental universe and is well-placed to continue its world-leading excellence for the next generation of physicists, engineers, and computer scientists. However, to remain in line with budgets and ecological requirements, research into the sustainability of its experiments will be just as crucial for its future. 


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