Maximilien Brice / CERN © CERN
The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland often collides at nearly the speed of light, but recently it collided for the first time with a new particle: atoms. In a test run on July 25, scientists at the LHC accelerated lead atoms with a single electron and retained the beam for several hours, creating a potential for future experiments with these types of particles.
A typical LHC experiment involves sending small particles – usually protons – around a huge ring at a decent fraction of the speed of light. After enough speed has been built up, the particles collapse and release large amounts of energy and break into new, more exotic particles. By studying the results of this collision, scientists can learn a lot about the building blocks of our universe.
Of course, different starting components give different end results, so scientists at LHC are keen to send as many different particles through their accelerator as possible. In the past, they have sent entire atomic nuclei through the machine.
This new experiment is a bit different because it has a single electron per atomic nucleus. This electron makes the experiment more difficult because it changes how the atoms behave around the magnets of the LHC. In particular, there is a risk that the atoms, if they lose their electrons somewhere in the huge ring of the complex, could hurl these atoms into the tunnel walls.
"It is very easy to accidentally strip the electron," says LHC engineer Michaela Schaumann. "If that happens, the core crashes into the wall of the jet pipe because its charge is no longer synchronized with the magnetic field of the LHC."
However, the LHC scientists have successfully performed two experiments with these atoms. In the first phase, they maintained a low-energy atomic beam for about an hour before increasing the energy to the maximum of the LHC, and they kept the atomic beam stable for about two minutes at that energy before the automatic protections turned it off, the beam was stable at maximum energy for two hours.
The main benefit of accelerating atoms with electrons is that the electrons can produce high-energy gamma rays, which are the strongest light waves possible. With a Reliable Source With gamma rays, scientists were able to do all sorts of experiments, including trying to create some of the more exotic kinds of matter in the universe, and they might even be able to produce dark matter.
It will probably take at least another year for the LHC to make real experiments with this technique, so we'll have to wait a bit longer to see what new discoveries these scientists can make.