As a day that was anticipated to be a pivotal moment in history, the first beam in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN was successfully steered around the full 27km of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator at 10:28AM yesterday.

The historic event marks a key moment in the transition from over two decades of preparation to a new era of scientific discovery.

Starting up a major new particle accelerator takes much more than flipping a switch, with the events of yesterday seen as something of a date with destiny. Thousands of individual elements have to work in harmony, timings have to be synchronized to under a billionth of a second, and beams finer than a human hair have to be brought into head-on collision.

The success of Wednesday 10th September puts a tick next to the first of those steps and over the next few weeks, as the LHC’s operators gain experience and confidence with the new machine, the machine’s acceleration systems will be brought into play and the beams will be brought into collision to allow the research programme to begin.

Clearly overjoyed, LHC Project Leader Lyn Evans commented, “It’s a fantastic moment. We can now look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.”

Linde proudly contributes
As the protons accelerate to almost light speed in CERN’s LHC, the Linde cooling systems installed there also experience their first assignment.

Extremely strong magnetic fields are required to keep the high-energy protons on their 27km circuit, cooled by eight high-performance cooling systems distributed on the circuit’s periphery. Each of the eight cooling systems is allocated one multi-stage cold compression system, each of which is installed in a separate cold box, and which reduces the temperature of the magnets to 1.8 degrees Kelvin (-271 degrees Celsius).

Only helium is capable of achieving this. Only the superconductivity that occurs in the magnetic coils at such an extremely low temperature makes generation of the necessary magnetic field strength possible.

The helium chilling system was designed, constructed and installed by the Linde subsidiary, Linde Kryotechnik AG, whose headquarters are in Pfungen, Switzerland.

Dr Aldo Belloni, member of the Executive Board of Linde AG, enthused over the involvement of both Linde and the industrial gas community in this pioneering research field.

“We are pleased to be able to contribute our expertise to this unique, fundamental research project. Just like the LHC as a whole, the technology we have implemented sets new standards. After years of planning and preparation, we are now glad that we can make our contribution toward the attainment of new scientific insights,” he said.

Industrial gas involvement
Indeed, it is not just Linde that has participated in the eye-catching research operation. Both Air Liquide and the Messer Group have played their part too, as the industrial gas business supports the drive for such an exciting exploration into the unknown.

In November 2006, Air Liquide transferred ownership of the entire LHC liquid helium supply system to CERN, completing a 22 month work programme. Later in April 2007, a large dipole magnet was symbolically lowered into the tunnel and completed the basic installation of the more than 1700 magnets that make up the collider. Air Liquide supplied most of the distribution systems, in addition to the gases liquid helium, liquid argon, and nitrogen.

In terms of helium supply and the ongoing involvement of the gases industry, over the course of the next few years the Messer Group, through its Swiss subsidiary Messer Schweiz AG, will provide a 160,000kg supply of helium to 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 scientists at CERN will also use the helium from Messer to cool down the large spectrometer magnets for the particle physics experiments.

Time will ultimately tell
Once colliding beams have been established, there will be a period of measurement and calibration for the LHC’s four major experiments and CERN notes that new results could start to appear in around a year.

Experiments at the LHC will allow physicists to complete a journey that started with Newton’s description of gravity. Gravity acts on mass, but so far science is unable to explain the mechanism that generates mass. It’s hoped that experiments at the LHC will provide the answer.

LHC experiments will also try to probe the mysterious dark matter of the universe – visible matter seems to account for just 5% of what must exist, while about a quarter is believed to be dark matter.

While the events of yesterday’s big ‘switch on’ heralded the implementation of 30 years of planning and preparation, the 10th September was also merely the beginning of a groundbreaking journey into the insights of our existence. The real results and revelations are still to come.

“The LHC is a discovery machine,” explained CERN Director General Robert Aymar. “Its research programme has the potential to change our view of the Universe profoundly, continuing a tradition of human curiosity that’s as old as mankind itself.”