At work on LEP, the world’s most powerful electron–positron collider
The LHC will be built inside the same tunnel as an existing accelerator, the Large Electron Positron (LEP) collider which came on stream in 1989. LEP will be removed from the tunnel at the end of this year to make way for the LHC. Here technicians make delicate adjustments to one of LEP’s thousands of magnets. (Image: CERN)

With its 27-kilometre circumference, the Large Electron-Positron (LEP) collider was – and still is – the largest electron-positron accelerator ever built. The excavation of the LEP tunnel was Europe’s largest civil-engineering project prior to the Channel Tunnel. Three tunnel-boring machines started excavating the tunnel in February 1985 and the ring was completed three years later.

In its first phase of operation, LEP consisted of 5176 magnets and 128 accelerating cavities. CERN’s accelerator complex provided the particles and four enormous detectors, ALEPH, DELPHI, L3 and OPAL, observed the collisions.

LEP was commissioned in July 1989 and the first beam circulated in the collider on 14 July. The collider's initial energy was chosen to be around 91 GeV, so that Z bosons could be produced. The Z boson and its charged partner the W boson, both discovered at CERN in 1983, are responsible for the weak force, which drives the Sun, for example. Observing the creation and decay of the short-lived Z boson was a critical test of the Standard Model. In the seven years that LEP operated at around 100 GeV it produced around 17 million Z particles.

In 1995 LEP was upgraded for a second operation phase, with as many as 288 superconducting accelerating cavities added to double the energy so that the collisions could produce pairs of W bosons. The collider's energy eventually topped 209 GeV in 2000.

During 11 years of research, LEP's experiments provided a detailed study of the electroweak interaction. Measurements performed at LEP also proved that there are three – and only three – generations of particles of matter. LEP was closed down on 2 November 2000 to make way for the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in the same tunnel.