On 10th September at around 9am CET, scientists at CERN, the world leading laboratory for particle physics, will begin to fire two opposing beams of subatomic particles at each other at speeds that will eventually reach close to the speed of light. The experiment in the world's most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), aims to recreate conditions after the Big Bang – some say it could generate a black hole that swallows the Earth; but if it does, you certainly won't be reading this!
The LHC, designed to further our understanding of a wide range of physics – including the search for the Higgs boson, extra dimensions and particles that could make up dark matter – is located about 100 metres underground on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland. The 27-kilometre tunnel contains a ring of superconducting magnets, with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. Conceived during the 80s and given the go-ahead for construction in 1994, is both an amazing feat of engineering and a credit to the power of international collaboration. It's also a grand experiment in patience, as the system isn't expected to reach maximum design performance until 2010. Only then will it achieve the goal of creating beams that are seven times more energetic, and around 30 times more intense than any previous machine. In the meantime, the target energy for 2008 is to collide the beams with an energy of 5 TeV per beam.
Teams of physicists from around the world will analyse the particles created in the collisions using special detectors that are in the LHC. There are six experiments in all, the two largest of which are ATLAS and CMS, general-purpose detectors for analysing the myriad of particles produced by the collisions in the accelerator.
The LHC has provided commercial opportunities for numerous companies, one of which is STMicroelectronics, which provided radiation-hard voltage regulators for use in the ATLAS experiment. And with the World Wide Web as a past example, there are likely to be numerous developments with commercial potential to come out of this, CERN's latest mission.
So I'll be tuning in to CERN’s live webcast on 10th, and barring the event of a black hole, keeping fingers crossed that CERN does indeed take particle physics research to a new frontier.