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Europe’s energy crunch squeezes world’s largest particle collider

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Some of the 1232 dipole magnets that bend the path of accelerated protons are pictured in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in a tunnel of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), during maintenance works in Echenevex, France, near Geneva. (File photo AFP)Premium
Some of the 1232 dipole magnets that bend the path of accelerated protons are pictured in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in a tunnel of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), during maintenance works in Echenevex, France, near Geneva. (File photo AFP)

  • CERN is drafting plans to idle its particle accelerators, including the Large Hadron Collider, if France runs short of electricity

Europe’s energy crisis is threatening to slow experiments into the fundamental forces of nature.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is drafting plans to shut down some of its particle accelerators at periods of peak demand, said Serge Claudet, chair of the center’s energy management panel. CERN is also considering how it could idle the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest accelerator, if necessary, Mr. Claudet said.

“Our concern is really grid stability, because we do all we can to prevent a blackout in our region," Mr. Claudet said.

The preparations show the far-reaching impact of Moscow’s move to transform Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies into a weapon of economic war. Emergency measures are now on the table after Russian energy giant Gazprom PJSC said Friday it would indefinitely stop natural gas deliveries through the Nord Stream gas pipeline, Russia’s main artery for delivering the fuel to Europe, pushing the continent closer to gas rationing as winter approaches.

Sweden and Finland on Friday said they would offer funding support to regional electricity producers, saying that Gazprom’s move threatened the region’s power market and its broader financial stability. The European Union is preparing plans to restructure the market to ease some of the pain.

Big energy consumers across the continent are making plans to cut their consumption during winter, when gas and electricity peaks for heating. Some European factories, from steel furnaces to fertilizer makers, are shutting down as the soaring price of electricity and gas has left them unable to compete in the global market.

CERN sits on a sprawling complex that straddles the French-Swiss border and is one of France’s largest electricity consumers. At peak operation, it consumes nearly 200 megawatts of power, a third as much as the nearby city of Geneva.

The most famous result of the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, was the confirmation in 2012 of the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle that gives mass to all other particles. Now the LHC is probing the properties of the Higgs and looking for particles that could constitute dark matter, the substance that scientists theorize pervades the universe but has so far gone undetected. The collider accelerates protons and other particles in opposite directions around a 17-mile ring, slamming them together at close to the speed of light to examine short-lived particles that appear in the aftermath of the collisions.

CERN’s aim is to keep the LHC operating and to avoid a sudden shutdown that could disrupt the $4.4 billion machine, Mr. Claudet said. The LHC is one of eight accelerators in the complex; there are also two particle decelerators at CERN that allow scientists to study antimatter.

CERN is in discussions with its electricity supplier, state-controlled French power giant EDF SA, to receive a day’s warning that the center would need to consume less electricity, Mr. Claudet said. CERN would give priority to shutting down other accelerators besides the LHC, lowering the center’s electricity consumption by as much as 25%.

In July, the center ramped up the LHC to slam particles together at the highest energy ever reached in a particle accelerator. That step came shortly after Moscow began to reduce the flow of gas through the Nord Stream pipeline following its invasion of Ukraine and the West’s decision to impose sanctions on Moscow. The energy crisis was compounded by the outages at France’s fleet of nuclear reactors, a major source of electricity for the continent.

Shutting down the LHC would save another 25%, with a catch: The collider relies on superconducting magnets cooled to -456 degrees Fahrenheit to bend the particle beam, requiring a significant amount of power even when the beam is turned off. Allowing the magnets to warm up could set back experiments at the LHC for weeks.

“It’s a voluntary action," Mr. Claudet said. “You don’t want to break your toy."

CERN officials are putting together a plan for pausing experiments that they will present to representatives of the governments that fund the center at the end of the month.

“If we are given a budget to do science and, voluntarily, we stop science to spare energy, we have to make sure we have the support of the respective countries," Mr. Claudet said.

Electricity supplies have been particularly tight in France because EDF has discovered corrosion on piping on one of its most common reactor designs, leading the company to take 12 of them offline for repairs. Officials have said they aim to restart the reactors before the end of the winter.

RTE, the company that operates France’s power grid, has said the country needs to cut electricity consumption this winter by 15% at peak hours to avoid blackouts. Gas shortages leave less of the fuel for gas-fired power plants, which are often relied on to increase quickly when the grid comes under stress.

Companies in Europe often have provisions in their contracts with their electricity suppliers that require them to lower consumption if directed during peak demand. For a factory, that can mean shutting down a production line temporarily and relying on stock to supply customers.

CERN’s contract with EDF, however, doesn’t have such a provision, Mr. Claudet said. The center is on a tight schedule to conduct experiments, particularly when the LHC is operating from May through December. The accelerators often run 24 hours a day, a necessity to generate sufficient collisions to confirm an experimental result.

“A stock of particles at high energy?" Mr. Claudet said. “No, I’m sorry."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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