The World’s Largest Particle Accelerators

The world’s largest particle accelerator, as elegant as it is complex, is the physical embodiment of our collective quest to understand the universe at its most fundamental level. Harnessing the language of mathematics, the skill of engineering, and the artistry of design, here are the biggest particle accelerators in the world.

Building Big Engineering
15 June 2023

The world’s biggest particle accelerators represent a tour de force of human ingenuity and ambition, employing a harmonious symphony of physics, engineering, and computer science to propel and collide particles at velocities approaching the speed of light. Their purpose is to probe the uncharted territories of our universe and to answer the most profound questions about the origins and the nature of the cosmos.

Such explorations, however, do not come without a cost. Building and maintaining the most expensive particle accelerator in the world requires not just a substantial financial investment, but a global collaboration that transcends borders and unites the world’s brightest minds.

Yet, their returns in knowledge and technological advancements are incalculable. Every collision can potentially yield revolutionary insights about the nature of our universe.

The largest particle accelerators in the world have been at the forefront of ground-breaking discoveries that have revolutionised our understanding of the cosmos. They form the foundation upon which our modern theories of physics are built and are essential in pushing the frontiers of knowledge further.

In this article, we’ll discover the underground location of the largest particle accelerator in the world, as well as the newest particle accelerator and the world’s most expensive particle accelerator.

What is a Particle Accelerator?

Scientist inspects particle accelerator in Oxfordshire, England (Credit: Monty Rakusen via Getty Images)

In simple terms, a particle accelerator is a machine that uses electromagnetic fields to propel charged particles, like protons or electrons, to high speeds and to contain them in well-defined beams.

The fundamental aim of the planet’s biggest particle accelerators is to increase the energy of these particles so that when they collide with each other or with stationary targets, they break apart, revealing smaller and more fundamental particles and forces.

The results of these collisions can lead to the discovery of new particles (like the Higgs boson), a better understanding of the fundamental forces of the universe, and insights into the nature of matter itself. In addition to research, particle accelerators are also used in the fields of medicine, manufacturing and food safety.


Inside a collider with a bright light at the end. (Credit: -Dant- via Getty Images)

Location: Ithaca, USA | Type: Energy Recovery Linac

Believed to be the newest particle accelerator in the world at time of writing, the CBETA, or its full name, the Cornell Brookhaven National Laboratory Energy Recovery Linac Test Accelerator, is a collaboration between Cornell University and New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. In traditional accelerators, the energy from a particle beam is discarded after experiments have been conducted, but CBETA harvests and reuses the residual energy, making it more cost-effective and efficient.


Amplifiers for Sirius at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory (Credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Location: São Paulo, Brazil | Circumference: 518.4m | Type: Synchrotron

Costing around £300 million, the Sirius particle accelerator is located at the Laboratório Nacional de Luz Síncrotron, or the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory in São Paulo. Sirius is reported to be the largest and most complex scientific infrastructure ever built in Brazil, and one of the world’s biggest particle accelerators. It generates high-intensity X-rays and other types of electromagnetic radiation, known as synchrotron light. This allows scientists and engineers to study matter in extremely fine detail, from the structures of proteins and biological molecules to the properties of new materials and technologies.


Simulation of colliding particles inside a particle accelerator (Photo by Rambeg via Getty Images)

Location: Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan | Circumference: 3.01km | Type: Electron-Positron

The SuperKEKB, one of the largest particle accelerators in the world, is located at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organisation on Japan’s Honshu island. It became operational in 2016 and its purpose is to accelerate electrons and their antimatter counterparts – positrons – in opposite directions and then collide them together. Scientists then carefully study the particles produced in these crashes in an attempt to understand more about why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter.

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (Photo by Liaison) (Credit: Staff via Getty Images)

Location: New York, USA | Circumference: 3.83km | Type: Synchrotron

Based at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, the RHIC is one of the biggest particle accelerators on Earth. It’s specifically designed to accelerate and collide heavy ions – atomic nuclei stripped of their electrons – at relativistic speeds (close to the speed of light) and its primary goal is to recreate the conditions that existed a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

Large Hadron Collider

Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Credit: Pascal Boegli via Getty Images)

Location: France/Switzerland | Circumference: 26.7km | Type: Synchrotron

The Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world, is located in a tunnel 50 – 175-metres deep below the border of France and Switzerland at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or CERN. It was developed in collaboration with thousands of scientists, hundreds of universities and technical laboratories and dozens of countries. The total budget for the LHC was believed to be approximately £6.2 billion, making it the most expensive particle accelerator ever built, as well as one of the world’s most expensive and complex scientific instruments.

Inside the LHC, two high-energy particle beams travel at 0.999999991 times the speed of light before they collide. Each proton travels around the 27-kilometre ring approximately 11,000 times per second. The fundamental purposes of the LHC are to explore the properties of elementary particles, as well as looking for new and unexpected phenomena, and to continue the search for dark matter and dark energy, the most mysterious components of the universe.


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