The accelerator complex

There's more to CERN than the Large Hadron Collider. A series of accelerators work together to push particles to nearly the speed of light

The accelerator complex at CERN is a succession of machines that accelerate particles to increasingly higher energies. Each machine boosts the energy of a beam of particles, before injecting the beam into the next machine in the sequence. In the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the last element in this chain – particle beams are accelerated up to the record energy of 6.5 TeV per beam. Most of the other accelerators in the chain have their own experimental halls where beams are used for experiments at lower energies.

The proton source is a simple bottle of hydrogen gas. An electric field is used to strip hydrogen atoms of their electrons to yield protons. Linac 2, the first accelerator in the chain, accelerates the protons to the energy of 50 MeV. The beam is then injected into the Proton Synchrotron Booster (PSB), which accelerates the protons to 1.4 GeV, followed by the Proton Synchrotron (PS), which pushes the beam to 25 GeV. Protons are then sent to the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) where they are accelerated to 450 GeV.

The protons are finally transferred to the two beam pipes of the LHC. The beam in one pipe circulates clockwise while the beam in the other pipe circulates anticlockwise. It takes 4 minutes and 20 seconds to fill each LHC ring, and 20 minutes for the protons to reach their maximum energy of 6.5 TeV. Beams circulate for many hours inside the LHC beam pipes under normal operating conditions. The two beams are brought into collision inside four detectors – ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb – where the total energy at the collision point is equal to 13 TeV.

The accelerator complex includes the Antiproton Decelerator and the Online Isotope Mass Separator (ISOLDE) facility, and feeds the CERN Neutrinos to Gran Sasso (CNGS) project and the Compact Linear Collider test area, as well as the neutron time-of-flight facility (nTOF).

Protons are not the only particles accelerated in the LHC. Lead ions for the LHC start from a source of vaporized lead and enter Linac 3 before being collected and accelerated in the Low Energy Ion Ring (LEIR). They then follow the same route to maximum energy as the protons.

The Control Centre

The CERN Control Centre combines control rooms for the laboratory’s accelerators, the cryogenic distribution system and the technical infrastructure. It holds 39 operation stations for four different areas – the LHC, the SPS, the PS complex and the technical infrastructure.

Explore the CERN Control Centre with Google Street View (Image: Google Street View)
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CERN's current and future accelerators

Linear accelerator 2

Linac 2 is the starting point for the protons used in physics experiments at CERN

Linear accelerator 3

Linac 3 is the starting point for the ions used in physics experiments at CERN

Linear accelerator 4

Linac 4 boosts negative hydrogen ions to high energies. It will become the source of proton beams for the Large Hadron Collider in 2020

The Antiproton Decelerator

Not all accelerators increase a particle's speed. The AD slows down antiprotons so they can be used to study antimatter

The Large Hadron Collider

The 27-kilometre LHC is the world's largest particle accelerator. It collides protons or lead ions at energies approaching the speed of light

The Low Energy Ion Ring

LEIR takes long pulses of lead ions from Linac 3 and transforms them into the short, dense bunches suitable for injection to the Large Hadron Collider

The Proton Synchrotron

A workhorse of CERN's accelerator complex, the Proton Synchrotron has juggled many types of particle since it was first switched on in 1959

The Proton Synchrotron Booster

Four superimposed synchrotron rings receive protons from the linear accelerator, boost them to 800 MeV and inject them into the Proton Synchrotron

The Super Proton Synchrotron

The second-largest machine in CERN’s accelerator complex provides a stepping stone between the Proton Synchrotron and the LHC