Scientists are designing a supercollider so powerful it could push the boundaries of modern physics

  • CERN's new supercollider will be 8 times more powerful than the LHC, the largest and most powerful in the world.

  • Physicists could use it to solve mysteries about the nature of our universe.

  • Based on their current timeline, the first phase of the new collider could be up and running by 2045.

For decades, physicists have been ramming particles together to peel back the layers of our universe. But despite all that research, we still only know what 5% of the universe is made of.

Particle physics research will need a major upgrade to begin exploring that mysterious 95%, made up of dark matter and dark energy.

CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, is designing a new supercollider called the Future Circular Collider (FCC) to push the boundaries of modern physics research and perhaps discover the true nature of our mostly invisible universe.

Based on CERN's timeline, this massive atom smasher could be partially operating by 2045.

A map of CERN's FCC location
CERN plans its Future Circular Collider around the city of Geneva, with the tunnel running underneath France and Switzerland.CERN

It would be 3 times bigger and roughly 100 times more efficient than the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and most powerful collider.

"With this new machine, we will reproduce 11 years of physics data taken on the old machine in about 2 minutes," said CERN accelerator physicist Michael Benedikt, leader of the FCC feasibility study.

They won't just reproduce data. With FCC, physicists hope to tackle some of the most mind-boggling questions in their field.

Solving the mysteries of our universe

What happened in the first instant after the Big Bang? What is the true nature of dark matter? Where did all the antimatter go?

"There are various important questions that we have no clue how to answer," said Christophe Grojean, a theoretical particle physicist at DESY also working on the FCC. "We need to find an explanation."

Particle colliders can help with that. Colliders send particles spinning around a ring at nearly the speed of light, crashing them into each other to reveal their properties.

proton collision inside the FCC-hh detector
An artist's illustration of a proton collision inside the FCC-hh detector.CERN

CERN has already accomplished a lot with the LHC, including discovering the Higgs Boson particle. Identifying the Higgs Boson was a huge step toward understanding weak nuclear interactions, a fundamental force in our universe that's pretty important — it keeps the sun shining.

But now, physicists want to dive deeper into the Higgs Boson to uncover its physics. Doing so could lead them to better understand dark matter, a mysterious substance that makes up roughly 85% of the universe.

Though we can't see dark matter, scientists are able to detect the gravitational effect it has on galaxies and their distribution throughout the universe. Understanding the properties of dark matter is key to understanding how galaxies form and grow.

To do that and explore other big questions, CERN needs a supercollider with an even higher level of precision and efficiency than the LHC.

The FCC would exist in two phases

In the first construction phase, CERN plans to build an electron-positron collider called the FCC-ee.

Often referred to as a "Higgs factory," this collider would produce Higgs particles at a very high rate and collect data with 10 to 100 times greater precision than the LHC, feasibility study leader Benedikt told BI.

In the second stage, CERN plans to upgrade the FCC-ee to a proton collider called the FCC-hh. This collider would push the envelope even further.

Inside the LHC tunnel
Inside the LHC tunnel. Together, the FCC-ee and the FCC-hh would make this new supercollider far more powerful and efficient than LHC.CERN

With an energy potential 8 times as large as the LHC, the FCC-hh "discovery machine" could uncover fundamental forces and particles that have never been observed.

Together, these two colliders could usher in a new frontier of physics research. But first, CERN has to build it.

Breaking new ground

CERN plans to build the 56-mile-long FCC tunnel beneath France and Switzerland, encircling the city of Geneva.

A map of the proposed location for the FCC.
A map of the proposed location for the FCC.CERN

If all goes well with the feasibility study and authorization process, tunnel construction will begin in the early 2030s and conclude around 2040.

Then, CERN would install the FCC-ee collider inside the tunnel. This phase-one collider could start operating by 2045, according to Benedikt.

Constructing a supercollider is no easy feat — financially or logistically. The first phase of construction alone will cost around $15 billion. CERN is collaborating with experts from 150 universities and research institutes worldwide to design and plan the FCC.

two people taking measurements on the ground
Environmental field investigations for the FCC feasibility study.CERN

"FCC is not a machine that a few individuals can pull off alone. You really need to put a force together," said Grojean.

Both Benedikt and Grojean believe that uniting this network has value beyond the FCC.

"We've allied communities that otherwise would not necessarily speak to each other," Benedikt said. "The value in linking these academic and industrial societies — it's difficult to quantify, but the level of impact on society is huge."

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