Groundbreaking news emerged from Geneva this month as CERN announced that the first attempt to circulate a beam in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be made on 10th September.

The news comes as the cool down phase of commissioning CERN’s new particle accelerator reached a successful conclusion.

The LHC is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, producing beams seven times more energetic than any previous machine, and around 30 times more intense when it reaches design performance, probably by 2010. Housed in a 27km tunnel, it relies on technologies that would not have been possible 30 years ago and could ultimately replicate the possible ‘big bang’ theory for the creation of planet Earth.

Starting up such a machine is not as simple as flipping a switch. Commissioning is a long process that starts with the cooling down of each of the machine’s eight sectors and followed by the electrical testing of the 1600 superconducting magnets – all of which are super-cooled using liquid helium.

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.

The initial start-up steps are followed by the powering together of all the circuits of each sector, and then of the eight independent sectors in unison in order to operate as a single machine.

By the end of July, this work was approaching completion, with all eight sectors at their operating temperature of 1.9 degrees above absolute zero (-271°C). The next phase in the process is synchronization of the LHC with the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) accelerator, which forms the last link in the LHC’s injector chain. Timing between the two machines has to be accurate to within a fraction of a nanosecond.

Once stable circulating beams have been established, they will be brought into collision, and the final step will be to commission the LHC’s acceleration system to boost the energy to 5 TeV, taking particle physics research to a new frontier.