LHC to go Beyond Specifications With Lead-Proton Collisions

First Posted: Jan 16, 2013 05:29 PM EST

Just one month before a two-year maintenance shut down of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a team of scientists prepares to go beyond the design specification of the world's largest particle accelerator and collide protons with heavy lead ions.
"No-one has ever collided protons and lead ions successfully before, and we have just one month to do it. We have to implement a new set of operational procedures very quickly and then explore how much we can increase the beam intensities," says Jowett. "It's going to be a challenging experimental run for the accelerator."

For this to work, the LHC has to accelerate two counter-rotating beams of particles and bring them into collision inside detectors. Since the two beam pipes are contained within a single magnetic structure, both beams experience the same strength of magnetic field. But lead ions are 208 times as heavy and have 82 times more positive charge than protons, so they are affected differently by the effects of the magnets. These effects are particularly pronounced at the injection energy of 450 GeV, where in one minute protons lap the 27-kilometre LHC some 674,729 times - about eight times more often than the heavier lead nuclei.

"Fortunately, the LHC has two radiofrequency systems and this means that we can tune the two beams separately," says accelerator physicist John Jowett. At higher energies the beams are closer in speed and the LHC team can move the proton-beam orbit about a millimetre towards the outside of the beam pipe, giving it a longer path to travel around the accelerator. The team also moves the lead beam towards the centre of the beam pipe to shorten its path. These adjustments ensure that the revolution frequencies of the separate beams become equal, so the beams collide properly in the experiments. The accelerator team is currently preparing the beams and testing the accelerator before the lead-proton run planned for later this week.

If colliding asymmetric beams was not part of the original LHC design, why is it now on the "to do" list? A major motivation is to create a benchmark for lead-lead collisions. These collisions create quark-gluon plasma, a hot, dense soup of quarks that are free-floating instead of being bound into particles. In high-energy lead-lead collisions in the LHC it can be difficult to distinguish effects caused by the presence of lead nuclei from effects caused by the plasma. Proton-lead collisions will not produce quark-gluon plasma, however, allowing physicists to isolate the effects of the plasma from the effects of the lead nuclei.

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