April 5, 2007 / 11:59 AM / 13 years ago

Bursting magnets may delay CERN collider project

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.S.-supplied magnets have burst in the world’s largest particle collider and experiments aimed at unlocking secrets of the universe may be delayed, scientists said on Thursday.

Visitors look into the 27km (16.8 miles) long underground ring LHC (Large Hadron Collider) in Geneva, October 16, 2004. U.S.-supplied magnets have burst in the world's largest particle collider and experiments aimed at unlocking secrets of the universe may be delayed, scientists said on Thursday. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Fermilab, which built the 13-metre (43-foot) magnets, said it was dumbfounded it had missed “something extraordinarily simple” in the design.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, the world’s leading centre for particle research, said it was still analyzing the incident which occurred on March 27 at its sprawling underground complex along the Swiss-French border.

The design flaw — forgetting to take account of an imbalance of forces — appears to have caused the magnets to burst during a high pressure test, according to both CERN and the U.S.-based Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory).

“There was a failure of a pressure test in magnets called the inner triplet,” said CERN spokesman James Gillies. “It was a pipe that burst, essentially a high-tech plumbing failure.”

The incident did not harm any staff who were at a safe distance.

Work has continued on CERN’s flagship project, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is due to become operational in November after nearly 15 years of work and billions of Swiss francs (dollars) of investment, according to the spokesman.

“Whether or not we maintain the schedule, it is too early to say. We won’t make a statement until the consequences of the pressure test failure are understood,” Gillies said.

The LHC experiments will probe the mysterious missing mass and dark energy of the universe. Visible matter seems to account for just 4 percent of what must exist, CERN says.

Particles will be smashed together at high speed in a 27-km (17-mile) channel through a tunnel, aiming to replicate in miniature the Big Bang fireball which scientists say happened some 15 billion years ago and created the universe.

In a statement Fermilab said it had failed to take into account “asymmetric loads” in the engineering design.

“...the high pressure test of the Fermilab-built inner triplet failed dramatically in the LHC tunnel with a loud ‘bang’ and a cloud of dust,” said Pier Oddone, director of the Chicago-based Fermilab, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“What the analysis shows so far is that something extraordinarily simple was missed in the design...In this case, we are dumbfounded that we missed some very simple balance of forces.”

Physicists from CERN and Fermilab were working together to redesign and repair the inner triplet magnets and will conduct another pressure test on June 1, a statement said.

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