At its 147th meeting in Geneva last week, the CERN Council heard news on progress towards start-up of the laboratory’s flagship research facility, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – a huge consumer of liquid helium.

Commissioning of the 27km LHC began in January 2007 when the first cool-down of one of the machine’s eight sectors began. At present, five sectors are at or close to their operating temperature of 1.9 degrees above absolute zero and the remaining three are believed to be approaching that temperature.

Once all sectors are cold, electrical testing will be concluded in readiness for first beams, currently scheduled for August.

“The accelerator, detectors and computing are all on course and we are looking forward to the earliest possible LHC start-up,” said CERN Director General Robert Aymar.

When the LHC starts up this summer, its proton beams will collide at higher energies than have ever been produced in a particle accelerator during what will be one of the most hotly anticipated and keenly observed experiments ever. The collision energy of the LHC, however, is modest compared to the energies of the cosmic ray protons that have been striking the Earth’s atmosphere for billions of years.

“The LHC is the highest energy particle accelerator on Earth,” said Dr Aymar.

“But the Universe has far more powerful ones. The LHC will enable us to study in detail under laboratory conditions what nature is doing already.”

Over the course of the next few years, industrial gas specialist The Messer Group, through its Swiss subsidiary Messer Schweiz AG, is to provide a 160,000kg supply of helium to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) for the operation of the LHC

The cooling capacity of the liquefied, inert helium gas will cool the close to 2500 superconducting magnets used to accelerate the particles, while the scientists at CERN will also use the helium from Messer to cool down the large spectrometer magnets for the particle physics experiments.