After LHC, CERN Reveals Plans For Even Bigger Atom-smashing Particle Collider

Particle accelerators are an extremely useful tool for scientists wishing to probe the fundamental open questions in physics. The largest and most powerful accelerator in the world—the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which lies deep below the France-Switzerland border—has made several groundbreaking discoveries, including the confirmation of an elusive subatomic particle known as the Higgs Boson.

Now, officials at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)—which operates the LHC—has unveiled plans to build an even bigger accelerator, right next to it, to further probe the mysteries of matter and the universe.

Read more: Scientists are about to start hunting for the universe's hidden realm

Conceptual designs put together with the help of 150 universities, research institutions and industrial partners show that the proposed accelerator—currently referred to as the "Future Circular Collider" (FCC)—will reside in an underground tunnel with a circumference of 62 miles. This is significantly bigger than the 17-mile structure that houses the LHC.

"The FCC conceptual design report is a remarkable accomplishment," said CERN Director-General Fabiola Gianotti in a statement. "It shows the tremendous potential of the FCC to improve our knowledge of fundamental physics and to advance many technologies with a broad impact on society."

"While presenting new, daunting challenges, the FCC would greatly benefit from CERN's expertise, accelerator complex and infrastructures, which have been developed over more than half a century," he said.

According to officials, the FCC could begin operations by 2040 with an accelerator that collides electrons and positrons—the antimatter counterpart to the electron. The machine—which is estimated to cost around $10.25 billion—would have the capability to detect new, rare processes and measure known particles with currently unobtainable precision.

This could allow scientists to detect whether there are any holes in the Standard Model (SM) that would indicate a new kind of physics exists. The SM is our best description of the observable universe, outlining the four fundamental forces that govern nature and all the known elementary particles—those that are not composed of any others.

CERN also outlined plans to building another machine which will be incorporated into the same tunnel and is expected to come online in the late 2050s. This accelerator will use superconducting magnets to collide protons at an "order of magnitude more powerful than the LHC." The unprecedented energies that this collider will be capable of producing in its collisions will allow scientists to conduct investigations into a wide variety of phenomena, including how Higgs particles interact with one another.

"Proton colliders have been the tool-of-choice for generations to venture new physics at the smallest scale," said CERN Director for Research and Computing, Eckhard Elsen in the statement. "A large proton collider would present a leap forward in this exploration and decisively extend the physics program beyond results provided by the LHC and a possible electron-positron collider."

Arnaud Marsollier, a spokesperson for CERN, said that the LHC would form part of the new collider as a tool to inject beams of particles into the new larger machine.

"It is what is very smart with this project, and why Geneva is the place for such a new machine, as it would benefit from the whole complex of accelerators and other existing infrastructures," he told Newsweek. "It is actually the way the CERN's accelerator chain has grown over time. We for instance still use old smaller accelerators to ramp up the energy of particles and inject into the LHC today!"

Over the next few years, the 22-member states of CERN will examine the proposals and come to a decision on whether they should be put into action, The Associated Press reported.

According to CERN, the benefits of a new collider are wide-ranging even if it is difficult to predict exactly what they will be. The organization says that the complex machinery required for the experiments will inspire new technologies and innovation, which will have an impact on the economy and society as a whole—just as the discovery of the electron in 1897 eventually led to the electronics industry which is now valued at an estimated $3 trillion.

"If we look back at the history of particle physics, we can see that huge advances in knowledge have been made, each time we have reached more precision and more energy, innovating with new larger colliders," Marsollier said. "Beside the need to study the Higgs with high precision, there are really big mysteries that remain to be solved."

"We still don't know for instance what dark matter is made of. We still don't know why there is matter domination of matter over antimatter," he said. "A future circular collider would have a vast discovery potential to search for what we call 'new physics' and then hopefully unlock the secrets of the universe."

This article was updated to include comments from Arnaud Marsollier.

The proposed layout of the future circular collider. CERN