The Secret Lives of Particle Accelerators

The most complex machines ever built don't just hunt for obscure subatomic bits

Beneath the French-Swiss border, the Large Hadron Collider will help scientists seek answers to some of the most profound questions about the universe. Beyond this lofty goal, though, particle accelerators can be used for decidedly more down-to-Earth projects — like fighting cancer, cleaning up industrial waste and even shrink-wrapping your Thanksgiving turkey. More than 17,000 particle accelerators are in operation around the world, used for radial tires, computer chips and 3-D images of molecules, among other tasks.

The LHC, which was restarted this week, will run at half its maximum energy for the next year and a half, as scientists monitor electrical systems that have already forced delays. At 3.5 trillion electron volts, a half-power LHC will still be three times as powerful as the world’s previous atom-smashing king, Fermilab’s Tevatron.

As the LHC searches for the elusive Higgs boson, which is thought to endow all other particles in the universe with mass, we decided to takes a look at some other, perhaps more humble uses for particle accelerators, the “cathedrals of science.” Launch the gallery below:

Additional reporting by Molly Webster