World's largest supercooled magnet gets going

Data for a huge global computing grid will be generated by 860 tons of superconducting, niobium-titanium cored magnet

The world's largest superconducting electromagnet has been turned on at full power for the first time. Designed as part of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)experiment at the international high-energy physics lab CERN in Geneva, the ATLAS magnet worked at the first attempt.

Called the Barrel Toroid after its shape, the magnet is built from eight 5m by 25m rectangular coils cooled to -269°C and carrying a current of 20,000 amps. It was powered up at full strength on 9 November after which the energy in the coils, equivalent of about 10,000 cars travelling at 70km per hour, was allowed to dissipate.

In use, the magnet will be used to bend the paths of particles formed from the collision of protons or lead ions accelerated to near light speeds in 27km diameter subterranean contra-rotating circular beams. The ATLAS experiment is one of five in the LHC, and engages 1,800 scientists from 165 universities and laboratories in 35 countries.

When fully operational in November 2007, the LHC will be the most powerful particle accelerator ever built and will be used to investigate why particles have mass and the nature of the as-yet undetected dark mass that's thought to make up all but four percent of the universe. In particular, the experimenters hope to detect the Higgs Boson within three years, a predicted subatomic particle that is key to the current mainstream theories of matter.

The search for the Higgs Boson will need an immense amount of data processing. Each day it runs, the LHC will generate around 10 terabytes of data, which will be distributed across two worldwide computing grids, coordinated by the LHC Computing Project (LCG).

This system, when completed, will allow scientists at 500 different research institutes to access all the data generated by the project.

The LHC will consume some 120 megawatts and is predicted to run for between 15 and 20 years. It will be rested for three months in winter because the French power station that supplies it is needed for the domestic grid.

CERN has an important place in the history of the internet, most famously as the birthplace of the web. ZDNet UK toured CERN earlier this month, where we came face-to-face with the LHC and also saw the world's first Web server, created by Tim Berners-Lee.

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