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Carving caverns

European centre for nuclear research CERN is adding new muscle to its existing particle accelerator, the large electron positron collider, or LEP.

Electrons and positrons are fired in opposite directions down a continuous vacuum tube housed within the 26.7km long ring tunnel.

They are accelerated to near the speed of light and steered around the circuit by powerful electro magnets. When particles collide researchers measure the release of energy and resultant creation of new matter using hugely sensitive detectors.

New super-cooled magnets operating at close to absolute zero will input 100 times more energy to particles orbiting in the vacuum tube giving them added mass.

'Once particles approach the speed of light it is difficult if not impossible to make them travel any faster, ' explains CERN communications chief Neil Calder. When they have reached maximum speed, any extra energy is converted into mass. 'Using the LEP accelerator we could give particles about as much mass as, say, a small car, ' Calder continues. After the LHC is complete, there will be enough energy available to make particles 'as massive as an articulated lorry'.

CERN believes that colliding more massive particles will produce larger energetic releases and greater numbers of new particles than hitherto possible.

Two vast new detectors designed to record the transient lives of particles produced in LHC collisions, are under construction.

The smaller detector, Atlas, will weigh 8,000t and stand as tall as a five storey office block. The larger Alice detector will tip the scales at 12,000t. Cathedral-like detector halls must be built to house the machines.

And to accommodate the vast bank of computers recording and interpreting the millions of electric signals, caverns only slightly smaller than the detector halls must be carved alongside.

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