College of Science and Mathematics

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Cal Poly Students Build New Detector for CERN

CERN spherical building at night

Soon, the world’s leading particle physicists will be using an instrument built by Cal Poly students. Professor Jennifer Klay and a team of Cal Poly physics students are building a new detector for the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. The work is done in collaboration with students and faculty at Chicago State University and funded by a $190,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The detector is a crucial piece of equipment for ALICE, one of four experiments running at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland. The most famous finding from the LHC in recent years was the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Detectors allow scientists to make discoveries such as the Higgs. Inside the LHC, two high-energy particle beams travel close to the speed of light and then collide. Some of the thousands of particles produced in the collision are extremely rare. The detector the students will build has a trillionth of a second to decide whether the particle it senses is important enough to record as data.

“This is the fastest detector in the system,” Klay said. “It’s a critical detector for ALICE because it tells you whether any given collision is worth investigating further.”

Constructing the detector will take three years and require precise testing. The finished product will fit on a typical office desk.

“Working on hardware development is a Learn by Doing, hands-on process,” Klay said. “For an undergraduate only institution to build a detector is pretty rare.”

In 2019, the students will travel to CERN to install the detector.

“They will get to work with world-class scientists and know that they were instrumental in enabling the next 10 years of data collection,” Klay said. “That’s an amazing opportunity for them and a great jumping off point for a career or graduate school.”

Students at San Luis Obispo High School will also be involved in the project, thanks to physics teacher and Cal Poly alumnus Kevin Coulombe, who traveled to CERN as a student.

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