Big Ol' Large Hadron Collider Accident ... (But We're Not All Doomed)
September 19, 2008 7:46 PM   Subscribe

BBC: Hadron Collider forced to halt. An underground tunnel fault released one ton of liquid helium, which had been acting as coolant, into the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, causing 100 supercooled magnets to heat up by an extra 100°C and then fail. Vacuum was lost as well.
posted by WCityMike (49 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Quenching is the most expensive noise your NMR can make.

The ironic part in this is most people will probably thing the "quench" has something to do with something being immersed in the liquid helium, when that's the opposite of the problem.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:51 PM on September 19, 2008
posted by lumensimus at 7:52 PM on September 19, 2008 [13 favorites]

I don't say it often, and usually think it's over-used on MeFi but here it's appropriate:

posted by fourcheesemac at 7:54 PM on September 19, 2008

I think it's worth emphasizing in these articles that magnet quenches are completely expected events. This is a failure mode that the magnets and their containers are designed for. Fermilab experiences these somewhat regularly, and they're not newsworthy. I guess this one is getting publicized just because everyone wants to hear some news from the LHC now.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:58 PM on September 19, 2008

A ton of liquid that brings to mind apocalyptic Hollywood-style-terminator-movie images.
posted by pjern at 8:00 PM on September 19, 2008

Given the hits and puts of the space program, this doesn't strike me as odd. For something this massive in scope to go off without any hitches? That would be odd.
posted by captainsohler at 8:02 PM on September 19, 2008

That's what my shop teacher said about my light organ project, captainsohler.

Let me turn this puppy on.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:07 PM on September 19, 2008

A ton of liquid that brings to mind apocalyptic Hollywood-style-terminator-movie images.

Or some doofus doing the highest, squeakiest Mickey Mouse voice evah.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:08 PM on September 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Next time try Gatorade, Large Hadron Collider. It doesn't taste as good as liquid helium, but it's slightly cheaper and has ELECTROLYTES.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:10 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I bet John Connor had something to do with this.
posted by mecran01 at 8:12 PM on September 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Electrolytes are what Large Hadron Colliders crave!

Well, that and collapsium Twinkies.
posted by Samizdata at 8:13 PM on September 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

When I first started working with superconducting magnets, my professor told me to leave the room fairly quickly in case of a quench. He said that the room could fill with so much condensed fog you might not be able to see your way out, leaving you to die from lack of oxygen, you final words sounding like Donald Duck...
posted by 445supermag at 8:20 PM on September 19, 2008 [8 favorites]

Vacuum was lost as well.

Forcing them to buy ShopVac to clean up mess.
Last seen hoovering over Swiss Alps.
posted by hal9k at 8:21 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dang, they could make some sick ass floating ice cream. Dang!
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:24 PM on September 19, 2008

What a quench is - for the uninitiated -

"A quench occurs when part of the superconducting coil enters the normal state. This can be because the field inside the magnet is too great, the rate of change of field is too great (causing eddy currents and resultant heating in the copper support matrix), or a combination of the two. More rarely a defect in the magnet can cause a quench. When this happens, that particular spot is subject to rapid joule heating, which raises the temperature of the surrounding regions. This pushes these into the normal state as well, which leads to more heating. The entire magnet rapidly (can take several seconds, depending on the size of the superconducting coil) becomes normal. This is accompanied by a loud bang as the energy in the magnetic field is converted to heat, and rapid boil-off of the cryogenic fluid. Permanent damage to the magnet is rare, but components can be damaged by localised heating or large mechanical forces."

From Wikipedia.
posted by phyrewerx at 8:28 PM on September 19, 2008

OW, My bosons!
posted by Floydd at 8:29 PM on September 19, 2008 [6 favorites]

Video of ~10 tesla magnet that holds about 60 liters of helium being quenched.
posted by 445supermag at 8:29 PM on September 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Why do I have the feeling that, somewhere in the LHC, lurks Dee Dee?
posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:38 PM on September 19, 2008 [6 favorites]

hehehehe Dee Dee!

Also, if I was there when this happened and hear that loud unexpected bang, I would still be running in the opposite direction as fast as I could.
posted by johnj at 8:56 PM on September 19, 2008

Given that helium will soon be in short supply, I wonder how LHC failures like this will affect reserves and how they are dispersed.
posted by bonobo at 9:04 PM on September 19, 2008

bonobo, I was just about ask that...helium is hard to come by. It floats away into space. This is a ton we will never get back.

But screw party balloons. I'm for feeding LHC all the helium it wants as long as it starts 'splaining stuff.
posted by Camofrog at 9:10 PM on September 19, 2008

So are we all dead now or something?
posted by The Straightener at 9:18 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just based on the size of some Helium dewars that were sitting in the hall by shipping and receiving a couple months ago, a ton can't be that much of the world's supply.

It was raining and my car was closer to that door.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:35 PM on September 19, 2008

Did any black holes leak out?
posted by mattoxic at 9:45 PM on September 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Anyone suspect foul play?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:49 PM on September 19, 2008

The goggles, they do nothing!
posted by Balisong at 10:25 PM on September 19, 2008

Well this article just became a lot more interesting.

I came across a bizarre paper recently suggesting that the LHC might be shut down. Not because of the funding cuts that have been threatening particle physics projects around the world, nor because of law suits accusing the LHC of threatening life on Earth. (Not even because we at the LHC have recently been accused of having far too much fun rapping.)

No, the paper suggested that future effects caused by the production of particles, such as the Higgs, could ripple backwards in time and prevent the LHC from ever operating.

Links to the paper:
posted by Rhaomi at 10:42 PM on September 19, 2008 [9 favorites]

Did somebody stick their head in the beam's path again?
posted by Guy Smiley at 10:56 PM on September 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Gordon! Thank God it's you! One minute we were running tests and the next there were these... crab things everywhere!
posted by shmegegge at 11:00 PM on September 19, 2008 [9 favorites]

I lost a vacuum once.

Beyond that, I can't relate.
posted by mazola at 11:26 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

And earlier this week there was a transformer that blew. Any news yet if that was a decepticon or an autobot?
posted by DreamerFi at 11:50 PM on September 19, 2008

So, just to check.

Whew! Alright then, but I think I'd like a second, more casual, opinion.

Well then, everything should be fine. Carry on.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:51 PM on September 19, 2008

This is annoying. First let me say as others already have, quenches are expected. When operating any superconducting magnet there's alot of mechanics that can go wrong, but when you are operating enough magnets that they measure 27 km end to end, things are bound to go wrong sooner or later.

The LHC was designed with safety mechanisms that should minimize, wherever possible, the effects of component failure, and very smart people have spent decades thinking about how to do this, but when these ideas have to be put to the test in the real world, and you consider the sheer SIZE of the interdependent systems, and the NUMBER of components involved it seems less a question of whether you can avoid damage to equipment when something goes wrong (and something WILL go wrong, there has never been any question about that), but whether you can avoid great big CATASTROPHIC failure!
There is a reason all access to the entire tunnels systems and caverns is completely forbidden during beam runs, and restricted to as few technicians as possible when the cooling systems are running.
(And I'm not talking about black holes and going back in time, sheesh, that will only happen if they can get all the mechanical systems to work. I mean WON'T happen)

To lose helium into the tunnel itself is very unpleasant. It means there has been a breach of the cooling circuit that runs the entire ring. There probably is some security measures so not all the helium is drained if things like this occur but I don't know about them.

I don't know how easily it can be patched up again but I don't think this was a planned failure mode. Although the engineers at the site have very considerable resources at hand.
Remember that transformer that was replaced some days ago was a monster weighing 30 tonnes, and it was done in the matter of 24 hours basically. That means they had this spare 'just lying around'. Who knows what else they can pull out of their sleeve. Although I doubt they have a spare 27 km accelerator ring lying around.. Although didn't you watch that movie Contact?
posted by Catfry at 11:54 PM on September 19, 2008

Although it does occur to me that if the liquid helium heats up and goes to gas form, venting it into the tunnel itself might be preferable to keeping it contained in the cooling system where it would build tremendous pressure and ultimately explosively rupture it. So venting the helium into the tunnel might actually be the nominal failure mode. If this is the case it means the cooling system has failed to some degree.
posted by Catfry at 12:01 AM on September 20, 2008

This is basically just delaying my 'told you so'. I'll still get to say it.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:58 AM on September 20, 2008

Maybe it was Lazlo.
posted by gcbv at 2:40 AM on September 20, 2008

The Squirrel Smasher is still planned to come online on schedule.
posted by EarBucket at 6:40 AM on September 20, 2008

I guess the LHC staff will have to defrost their pizzas in the microwave like everyone else until they fix this.
posted by Quietgal at 8:41 AM on September 20, 2008

As captainsohler says above, it would be more unusual for something this complex to work first time without a hitch. There's a reason that flipping that switch for the first time is called the 'smoke test.'
posted by Killick at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2008

Did any black holes leak out?

Rescue Plan Seeks $700 Billion to Buy Bad Mortgages
posted by cenoxo at 9:40 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

They shouldn't feel too bad. Guys lose their hadrons every once in a while.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:50 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

A ton (or a tonne, even) of liquid helium really isn't all that much.

A tonne of water takes up just one cubic metre (1m x 1m x 1m); a tonne of liquid helium takes up eight cubic metres (2m x 2m x 2m) -- roughly a carload.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:09 AM on September 20, 2008

Vacuum was lost as well.

"Damn! This vacuum tube is empty, too!"
posted by dhartung at 11:55 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

The idea of a bunch of superscientists running around sounding like chipmunks just popped in to my head.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:40 PM on September 20, 2008

Maybe this is God preventing us from destroying the planet.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:30 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

So this has nothing to do with the fact their computers were hacked recently?
posted by 999 at 6:42 PM on September 21, 2008

No, it doesn't. Their web servers were defaced (which is different from ZOMGH4X!!!). The machines directly associated with the LHC were nowhere near those web servers (in terms of the physical network...I've never been to CERN, so I can't tell you where some web servers are in relation to the largest machine ever built by mankind.).
posted by crataegus at 11:50 PM on September 21, 2008

Firedetectors were turned off ;)

Maybe they do things differently in France, but in the US, institutional fire systems don't work optically. Gaseous helium is unlikely to melt the metal strips that actual fire systems work on.
posted by DU at 4:33 AM on September 22, 2008

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