Science requires finesse, but sometimes it also needs more power. CERN took the latter approach when it built the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17-mile (27 kilometers) particle accelerator that smashes protons together with so much energy they fracture into subatomic confetti. By studying the remnants of those collisions, scientists have learned more about the nature of the universe. The LHC isn’t the end-all tool for exploring the frontiers of physics, though. The agency has drawn up plans for the instrument’s successor — it’s like the LHC on steroids.
The Large Hadron Collider is currently the world’s largest scientific instrument, sitting under the France–Switzerland border near Geneva. Having a long “runway” for speeding up particles is essential for a particle collider because that lets you reach higher collision energies. The LHC has been setting records in this department ever since it came online in 2008. By 2009 it had crossed in the teraelectronvolts (TeV) range. In 2018, CERN achieved a whopping 13 TeV collision, and the instrument is currently being upgraded for even higher power. There is only so much scientists can do with the current LHC framework, though. Eventually, we will need a new particle collider to probe the intricacies of the universe. That’s the Future Circular Collider (FCC), as it’s currently known.
According to the new CERN report, the FCC could have a 62-mile (100 kilometers) track in the same region of Europe — that’s four times larger than the LHC. When completed, the FCC should be capable of smashing atoms at unprecedented energies of up to 100 TeV. The FCC wouldn’t simply be a larger version of the LHC, either. It will need more powerful electromagnets, new detectors, improved superconducting materials, and enhanced computing facilities to process all the data it gathers. Some of the necessary technologies don’t exist yet, but we’ve got time. The FCC is a forward-looking project that aims to plan for what comes after the LHC, which could operate until around 2030. CERN believes it will take around 20 years to design and build the FCC. It could be 2040 or 2050 before this instrument is up and running.
Among the most notable achievements of the Large Hadron Collider is the 2012-2013 discovery of the Higgs boson, first theorized by Peter Higgs in 1964. While we know it exists, the nature of the Higgs is still murky. Higher-energy collisions from the improved LHC might shed some light on it, but scientists may need to wait for the FCC to study the particle in detail.
The LHC will continue to make discoveries for years to come, but you can expect to start hearing more about the FCC project as we move into the next decade.