A model of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel seen at the CERN (European Organization For Nuclear Research) visitors' center in 2008 in Geneva-Meyrin, Switzerland. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
  • The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a giant particle accelerator in Europe, which smashes particles together.
  • South Africa is a member of the ALICE experiment on the LHC, investigating the hottest known substance.
  • A proposed upgrade will allow ALICE to detect more than 100 times more collisions than it does right now.

South African institutions will be contributing three vital pieces of equipment when a detector on the world’s largest science experiment gets an upgrade – in its quest to unravel the mysteries of the Big Bang.

Between them the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, and research facility iThembaLABS will make components that will allow scientists to analyse how particles behave inside matter at a temperature of 5.5-trillion degrees Celcius.

The Large Hadron Collider, a 27km underground particle accelerator based at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, has a number of detectors that record what happens when particles collide.

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Unlike other experiments on the LHC, which are searching for new particles, ALICE detects quark-gluon plasma, which is thought to have formed just after the Big Bang.

Earlier this year, South Africa signed an agreement with CERN to supply parts for an upgraded ALICE detector.

The three local organisations will supply components for the readout and trigger system for the muon identifier, the muon tracking chambers, and the transition radiation detector. 

Muons are tiny fundamental particles.

A General view of the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear research) in Geneva, Switzerland. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

“Quark gluon plasma is the hottest piece of matter that has ever been created in a lab,” says Thomas Dietel, a physicist at the University of Cape Town. “What are the properties of this piece of matter, how hot is it, how do particles move through it?”

But at the moment the experiment has had to reject about 95% of its events it detects, Dietel says. A proposed upgrade will allow the detector to collect 100 times more data on events.

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“The idea is to just analyse all the collisions that happen in our detector, which is 100 times more than we can record at the moment,” Dietel says. “Instead of 100GB/s, we will read 3TB/s from our detector.”

South Africa is also involved in the ATLAS project, one of the LHC’s general purpose detectors.

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