Higgs hunt halts with CERN collider down for two-year upgrade

Large Hadron Collider won't run more particle collisions until 2015

The Large Hadron Collider, which discovered what is believed to be the elusive Higgs boson, is being shut down for a two-year overhaul.

The shutdown began Wednesday, according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which operates the facility. The collider won't run any particle collisions until 2015 although the CERN lab is set to be back up in the second half of 2014.

The collider, which has been called "one of the great engineering milestones of mankind," was built to explore concepts like the Big Bang theory, dark matter and the Higgs boson. Smashing particle beams together in the collider creates showers of new particles that replicate conditions in the universe just moments after its conception.

CERN noted that it has collected more than 100 petabytes of data, which is equivalent to about 700 years of full HD-quality movies.

The collider, a 17-mile, underground, vacuum-sealed loop at a facility that sits astride the Franco-Swiss border, was first tested in September 2008. Plagued with technical problems, the collider was kept offline for repairs and the addition of safeguards until November 2009.

This planned downtime, however, is for maintenance and to upgrade the collider so it's ready for higher energy collisions.

"There is a great deal of consolidation work to do on CERN's whole accelerator complex, as well as the [Large Hadron Collider] itself," said CERN's director for accelerators and technology, Steve Myers, in a statement. "We'll essentially be rebuilding the interconnections between [collider] magnets, so when we resume running in 2015, we will be able to operate the machine at its design energy of 7 TeV per beam."

TeV stands for teraelectron volt, which is a measure of energy.

Before it was shut down, the collider had one potentially major discovery.

Last summer, CERN scientists announced the discovery of a new particle. They weren't sure at the time, but said they hoped that it was the Higgs boson, a particle with such mystery and scientific importance attached to it that it has been dubbed the God particle.

The Higgs boson is believed to account for why everything in the universe has weight. It could be a key component of everything from humans to stars and planets, as well as the vast majority of the universe that is invisible.

In December, CERN scientists said they are nearly positive that the particle discovered is the Higgs boson but will continue to investigate it.

The Large Hadron Collider
A worker makes an inspection in the tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider. (File photo: CERN)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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