It’s this sort of news I really did not want to wake up to. At 0927 GMT Friday morning, a fault known as a “quench” resulted in the leakage of a tonne of helium coolant causing 100 of the LHC superconducting magnets to heat up 100°C. The fire services had to be called and it was some time before engineers could access the tunnels to assess the damage. It was worse than they were expecting. Although no one was hurt and there was no danger to the public, the once-supercooled magnets were one hundred times warmer than they should be and optimal vacuum conditions had been lost. To perform repairs, the rest of the damaged sector will need to be warmed up and then slowly cooled down again, resulting in a shutdown of LHC operations for at least two months…
The leak occurred between the Alice and CMS detectors (sectors 3-4) after repairs to the faulty 30-tonne transformer were being finalized and the systems were being powered up to begin a new series of commissioning tests. According to the LHC logbooks, temperatures rose by 100°C and the vacuum required within the equipment for particle circulation to be possible was lost. Engineers had to wait for oxygen levels to return to normal within the tunnels before they could investigate the “meltdown.”
Although last week’s fault with the transformer caused frustration, setting LHC experiments back by a few days, scientists were optimistic the incident would have minimal effect on the first scheduled particle collisions in October. Friday’s quench, however, is a serious incident, knocking the largest experiment mankind has ever attempted offline for at least two months. Although this is sad news, many scientists are keeping a positive attitude:
“This kind of incident was always a possibility with such a unique and demanding project, thatâ€™s why we were so tense on the 10th [of September]. Having seen those tantalising first signs of beam in our detectors, everyone is raring to go. So itâ€™s really disappointing, and hard for us to keep in perspective right now. But a delay like this in a 20-year project isn’t an utter disaster and Iâ€™m sure the team at Cern will fix it, and make it more robust as they go.” – Prof Jonathan Butterworth of University College London, the UK head of the Atlas detector.
So what happened? The basic operating conditions for the LHC depend on very low temperatures and a very high vacuum state. It would appear both key conditions were lost as engineers tested the electrics of the LHC in the run-up to full commissioning. There was a faulty connection between two of the superconducting magnets, so when the system was switched on, the high current melted the connection, causing the helium leak. The loss of supercooled helium caused a rapid release of stored energy (an event known as a quench), heating the magnets and destabilizing the vacuum conditions.
After such a smooth start to the first proton circulation on September 10th, these setbacks may come as a surprise. However, probing the frontier of physics rarely happens without a few hiccups along the way, so let’s hope this incident will be the last and we can once again look forward to the first particle collisions toward the end of the year…