Europe is currently suffering from an energy crisis. The aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, which caused the Russian government to cut gas supplies, has pushed the continent’s heating and electricity prices to much higher magnitudes.
In the heart of Europe, along the Franco-Swiss border, the particle physics laboratory at CERN faces the same plight. It was reported this month that CERN officials are drawing up plans to constrain or even shut down the recently restarted Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
If the LHC, the world’s largest and most expensive accelerator, were to be shut down for a short time, that would not be unusual for particle accelerator research. However, if he has to hibernate for a longer period of time, complications can arise.
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Some say that CERN uses as much electricity as a small town, and there is some truth to that. According to the group’s own figures, its facility uses about a third of the electricity of nearby Geneva, Switzerland, in a year. The exact numbers vary from month to month and year to year, but the lab’s particle accelerators can account for about 90 percent of CERN’s electricity bill.
For a ground-based observer, it is very easy to wonder why so much energy is poured into arcane physics experiments involving subatomic particles, plasma, and dark matter. “Given the current context and as part of its social responsibility, CERN is preparing a plan to reduce its energy consumption this winter,” wrote Maïlys Nicolet, a spokeswoman for the group, in a press statement.
However, CERN does not have the same supply concerns as the average European, as its energy strategy is already reasonably sustainable. The plant draws its power from the French grid, which gets more than two-thirds of its juice from nuclear fission — the highest of any country in the world. This not only drastically reduces the LHC’s carbon footprint, but also makes it far less dependent on imported fossil fuels.
But the French electricity grid has another quirk: unlike much of Europe, which relies on gas to heat their homes, electric heaters are often used in France. As a result, local utility bills can double during the cold months. Currently, 32 of the country’s 56 nuclear reactors are shut down for maintenance or repairs. The French government plans to strengthen its grid against the energy crisis by turning most of them back on by winter.
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But if that doesn’t happen, CERN could face a power outage. Even if the research giant were to stretch its budget on electricity bills, depending on how France’s reactors fare, there just might not be enough of it. “For this fall, it’s not a price issue, it’s an availability issue,” said Serge Claudet, chair of CERN’s energy management board Science.
However, hibernation is not exactly uncommon for the LHC. In the past, CERN shut down the particle accelerator for winter maintenance. This year is no exception: the collider’s stewards plan to mothball it from November to March. If the energy crisis in Europe continues into 2023, the LHC hiatus could last well into the warmer months, if not longer.
CERN executives are reviewing their options, according to the facility’s spokesman. The French government could order the LHC not to run at times of high power demand, such as mornings and evenings. Alternatively, CERN could try shutting down some of the smaller accelerators that share the site to keep its flagship running.
But not all particle physicists are on board when it comes to prioritizing energy for a single machine, a collaborator on ATLAS, one of the LHC’s experiments.
On the other hand, the LHC has more to lose by going dark indefinitely. If it has to be shut down for a year or more, the collider’s equipment, such as the detectors used to observe very small-scale collisions, could begin to deteriorate. “That’s why nobody would advertise to switch off and wait five years,” says Lohwasser. It also takes quite a bit of energy to keep the LHC in a quiescent state.
Even when CERN’s accelerators aren’t running, particle physicists around the world sifting through the data still have work to do. Field experiments provide countless results: positions, velocities and countless mysterious matter particles from thousands of collisions. Experts can still find subatomic artifacts hidden in the measurements for up to a decade after logging. The flow of the physics major is almost certainly not going to stop because of an energy crisis.
For now, the decision to power the third run of the LHC remains up in the air. This week, CERN officials will submit a plan to the agency’s government body on how to proceed. This solution will in turn be submitted to the French and Swiss governments for consultation. Only then will the final decision be published.
“So far, I don’t necessarily look like a big concern [physicists] about these plans,” says Lohwasser. If CERN has to take a back seat to larger concerns, then many in the scientific community will accept that.