The world’s largest particle-physics lab normally runs up huge energy bills. This winter, it’s trying to cut its consumption.
The energy crisis fuelled by Russia’s war in Ukraine is not just squeezing households and businesses across the continent. It’s also affecting research in science laboratories, including at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN.
This physics lab, located on the border between Switzerland and France, is home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest and most powerful particle accelerator.
Ten years ago, it was used to prove the existence of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle thought to be vital to the formation of the universe after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. CERN’s research also plays a key part in tomorrow’s innovations, from computing to medicine
But the kind of work it carries out requires a lot of power. CERN uses an average of 1.3 terawatt hours of electricity per year, roughly equivalent to a town of 230,000 inhabitants. The Large Hadron Collider alone accounts for about half its consumption.
"This is both a lot and not much for a laboratory of our size and the societal benefits we offer," Malika Meddahi, CERN’s deputy director for accelerators and technology, told Euronews Next.
Winter break brought forward
Every year, during the cold winter months when energy demand is highest, the LHC traditionally pauses its activity, to reduce the load on the network.
But as the French government is calling on the nation to embrace "energy sobriety," CERN is going one step further to slash its energy consumption this year and next.
CERN’s particle accelerator complex will shut down on November 28, two weeks earlier than originally planned. After this winter break, CERN’s use of the LHC will further be reduced by 20 per cent in 2023.
In the meantime, CERN also stands ready to shut down its particle accelerators in just a few hours, in case energy resources in France or Europe are particularly strained, Meddahi added.
Many of CERN’s physicists have ongoing experiments that will be directly impacted by CERN’s energy measures, she said. Experiments that had been planned during the two weeks of early closure will be postponed to the following years.
"Now for our Large Collider, it is true that there are two weeks of data that are lost,” she explained. “However, given the amount of data that is being accumulated now and will be accumulated until 2025, the impact is less significant”.
Taking energy constraints into account
Other scientific complexes are facing difficulties navigating the energy crisis.
The German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, which houses the world's most powerful X-ray laser, is also struggling with rising electricity prices.
The facility buys its electricity in tranches up to three years in advance, to hedge against sudden price jumps. But Wim Leemans, its director of the accelerator division told Nature that “at current prices we are not able to afford it”.
New scientific facilities are increasingly taking energy constraints into account.
For instance, the LUMI supercomputer inaugurated this year in Finland gets all of its electricity from 100 per cent renewable hydroelectric power, and was designed to use the region’s low temperatures as a natural cooling system to reduce its energy consumption.
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