CERN’s proposed $17 billion particle collider would search for new and unknown physics, but it has drawn fire for its hefty price tag.

Key takeaways

  • CERN plans to build a larger, $17 billion Future Circular Collider (FCC) spanning 57 miles to delve deeper into particle physics beyond the capabilities of the current Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
  • The FCC aims to reach energies of 100 tera electron volts, seven times more powerful than the LHC, to unlock mysteries like dark matter, dark energy, and the origins of gravity.
  • Proponents argue that besides advancing fundamental physics, the FCC could spur technological innovations with broad societal benefits in fields like cryogenics and superconducting magnets.
  • Critics, however, question the cost-effectiveness and potential scientific returns of the FCC compared to other research opportunities in high-energy physics.
  • A decision on the FCC’s construction is expected in 2028, with phases of the collider potentially operational by 2045, aiming for full functionality by the 2070s.

Researchers at the world’s largest particle accelerator have proposed building a new, bigger atom smasher.

The $17 billion Future Circular Collider (FCC) would be 57 miles (91 kilometers) long, much beyond its predecessor, the 16.5-mile (27-kilometer) Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

Physicists want to utilize the FCC’s enhanced size and power to investigate the limits of the Standard Model of particle physics, the current best explanation for explaining how the universe’s tiniest components behave. The researchers hope to find unknown particles and forces by smashing particles at even higher energies (100 tera electron volts, compared to the LHC’s 14), as well as investigate the nature of dark matter and dark energy, two invisible entities thought to make up 95 percent of the universe.

“The FCC will not only be a wonderful instrument to improve our understanding of the fundamental laws of physics and nature,” CERN’s director-general, Fabiola Gianotti, said during a press. “It will also be a driver of innovation, because we will need new advanced technologies, from cryogenics to superconducting magnets, vacuum technologies, detectors, instrumentation — technologies with a potentially huge impact on our society and huge socioeconomic benefits.”

Atom smashers, such as the LHC, clash protons at near-light speed in search of uncommon decay products that may reveal new particles or forces. This enables scientists to evaluate their best knowledge of the universe’s most fundamental building elements and how they interact, as defined by the Standard Model of Physics.

Though the Standard Model has allowed scientists to make incredible predictions, like as the existence of the Higgs boson, which was found by the LHC in 2012, physicists are far from happy and are always hunting for new phenomena that may shatter it.

This is because, while being our most thorough model yet, it contains vast gaps, rendering it completely incapable of explaining where gravity originates, what dark matter is comprised of, or why the universe contains far more matter than antimatter.

To explore these new horizons, researchers at CERN will employ the FCC’s sevenfold boost in beam energy to accelerate particles even faster.

However, while making a promising start, the detector is still a long way from being completed. The recommendations put out by CERN are part of an interim report on a feasibility study that will be completed next year. Once completed and assuming the detector plans go ahead, CERN, which is run by 18 European Union member states as well as Switzerland, Norway, Serbia, Israel, and the United Kingdom, would most likely seek extra financing from nonmember countries for the project.

Despite high expectations for what the new collider may discover, several scientists remain unconvinced that the costly equipment will discover new physics.

“The FCC would be more expensive than both the LHC and LIGO [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] combined, and it has less discovery potential,” Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, said on the platform X, previously Twitter. “It would not provide a satisfactory return on investment given current knowledge and technology. There are now greater opportunities to explore than high energy physics.”

Member nations will convene in 2028 to determine whether to approve the project. The initial phase of the machine, which would smash electrons with their opposite counterparts, positrons, would be online in 2045. Finally, in the 2070s, the FCC would start blasting protons into each other.

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