Large Hadron Collider upgrade will open opportunities for India’s scientists, industry: CERN scientist

Gurugram, India is playing a major role and could play an even bigger one in the upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator that helps scientists understand the fundamental structure of matter, says European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) scientist Archana Sharma.

The upgrade of the LHC — a 27-km ring of superconducting magnets buried under the ground between France and Switzerland — expected in 2025 could lead to new and exciting opportunities for India’s researchers and industry, says the Indian-origin senior scientist.

“There is a very big upgrade happening… The potential benefits of this upgrade for India’s scientific community and industrial sector hold the promise of pushing the boundaries of knowledge and technological advancements,” Sharma told PTI.

“And, of course, India is playing a major role and can play an even bigger role because I see huge potential, huge competence, huge industry component as well, huge student population that can be trained and build capacities for future leaders,” she added.

CERN, headquartered in Geneva, has been at the forefront of groundbreaking discoveries in particle physics for decades.

The LHC has been instrumental in unravelling the mysteries of the universe, including the discovery of the Higgs boson, or the ‘god particle’ in 2012. Higgs boson is an elementary particle in the standard model of particle physics.

Sharma is best known for her work in gaseous detectors which she contributed to the discovery of the Higgs boson, the only Indian scientist to do so.

“You and everything around you are made of particles. But when the universe began, no particles had mass; they all sped around at the speed of light. Stars, planets and life could only emerge because particles gained their mass from a fundamental field associated with the Higgs boson. The existence of this mass-giving field was confirmed in 2012, when the Higgs boson particle was discovered at CERN,” according to the CERN website.

The forthcoming upgrade to the LHC, known as the High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC), is expected to further enhance the collider’s capabilities, allowing scientists to delve even deeper into the fundamental constituents of matter and the forces that govern the universe.

“I feel that is an opportunity (for India). So yes, we should engage in these and we are engaging, it’s not that we aren’t. However, the room I see is large,” said Sharma, the recipient of this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award for her contribution to science and technology.

Sharma received her masters in nuclear physics from the Banaras Hindu University. In 1989, she received her PhD in experimental particle physics from Delhi University.

She is in India to attend a conclave on ‘Bridging the Gap: Particle Physics and its Relevance in our Everyday Lives’ organised by the Shiv Nadar School, Gurugram, and her NGO Life Lab Foundation on Tuesday.

Sharma said there is an ambitious plan to build a new, much larger collider in Geneva.

“In the future, there are bigger programmes that are on the horizon. One programme is the Future Circular Collider (FCC) and which is going to be 100 km in circumference… there is room for research and development (R&D), there is room for taking big chunks of responsibility and making our industry engage in a way that is never done before,” she explained.

The goal of the FCC is to push the energy and intensity frontiers of particle colliders, with the aim of reaching collision energies of 100 TeV, in the search for new physics.

TeV stands for tera electron Volts or 1,000,000,000,000 electron Volts. 1 TeV is about the energy of motion of a flying mosquito.

Sharma said the Indian scientific community has long been engaged in collaborative efforts with CERN, contributing to various experiments and research projects.

“Indians have played quite a big role at CERN from the 1960s and 70s. There were stalwarts like (particle physicist) Prof Prince Malhotra who were already working at CERN, in collaboration with Delhi University, Punjab University, and so on. But everybody has been contributing for several decades.

“Our contribution became much bigger, and we became an observer state in 1999. Then we became an associate member in 2017. So, opportunities started opening for Indian nationals,” she noted.

Sharma is now working on making experiments at CERN more environment friendly.

“I think we all have a duty towards the planet. So we need to look at ways and means on how we can work sustainably, especially given the very long nature of our experiments,” she added.

CERN, the scientist said, is phasing out greenhouse gases such as freons as a coolant.

“In the next generation, that is the upgrade, we have freon-less cooling. All the cooling that was leaking or giving (carbon) footprint in the atmosphere is going to be zero starting from 2027,” she said.

CERN is also working on reducing carbon footprint by optimising energy usage in experiments.

“We are reusing the waste energy that is being created from the accelerators into heating, because we need to heat buildings, and there are programmes on R&D. So we are definitely very conscious and we have a team that is looking into ways of improving sustainability,” Sharma said.

The physics conclave at Shiv Nadar School, she said, gave her an opportunity to directly interact with the students.

“I keep coming back because I feel that whatever little I have done in my life, it can inspire students, particularly girls. So I try to do what I can to inspire the students.” “And I think scientific temperament in India is much better than in many other countries. Education and particularly scientific education is highly regarded in our country,” she added.