U-M Physicists Upgrade CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland

Three University of Michigan physicists are helping to upgrade the world’s largest particle accelerator. The project was made possible by $7.1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.
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ATLAS detector of the Large Hadron Collider
Three U-M scientists are helping to upgrade the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Pictured is the ATLAS detector of the Collider. // Photo courtesy of

Three University of Michigan physicists are helping to upgrade the world’s largest particle accelerator. The project was made possible by $7.1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.

The Large Hadron Collider is operated by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Both CERN and the Large Hadron Collider are located on the French-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.

The researchers will be working on the high-luminosity upgrade of the ATLAS detector at the facility, ultimately providing more intense proton-proton collisions and the upgrade in computing needed to detect the results of the collisions.

“The collider will be producing a billion collisions in a second,” says Tom Schwarz, one of the researchers. “To detect these collisions, you have to have really high-speed electronics that can also survive the harsh radiation conditions inside the collider, and very precise detectors to detect and measure the vast number of particles produced in these messy interactions.”

The team is upgrading part of the ATLAS detector known as the muon spectrometer. The muon is a particle similar to an electron but about 200 times heavier. It’s an important decay product of many rare physics processes, including those involving the Higgs Boson, a particle previously discovered at CERN that gives objects mass. ATLAS is the volume detector of the Large Hadron Collider.

Schwarz and Junjie Zhu, another one of the three scientists, are building two separate components of radiation-resistant high-speed electronics for the readout of the muon detections. Bing Zhou, the third researcher, is leading the construction of new precision detectors for the tracking of the muon, produced in high-energy collisions.

The Large Hadron Collider uses superconducting electromagnets to accelerate protons around a 17-mile track and smashes them together at very high energy levels. The collisions cause them to break apart, allowing researchers to record how they break and what the parts are.

Colliding protons at these energies allows scientists to recreate the conditions of the universe immediately after the Big Bang. By studying the collisions, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider hope to answer fundamental questions about the universe: Why do particles have mass? Why is there more matter than antimatter? What is the nature of dark matter?

As scientists increase the intensity of the collisions, the equipment needed to detect and record the collisions needs to be upgraded to be resistant to the radiation produced and precise enough to capture faster, more intense outcome of the collisions.

The three physicists are involved in leadership roles within the ATLAS experiment. Schwarz is leading the U.S. High Luminosity-Large Hadron Collider upgrade of the ATLAS muon spectrometer, a $20 million effort funded by the National Science Foundation that includes five U.S. institutions.

Zhou leads the U.S. operations program for the precision muon detector system, and Zhu is leading the ATLAS-wide High Luminosity-Large Hadron Collider upgrade of front-end electronics for the precision muon detector system.

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