3 December 2018

CERN: the Large Hadron Collider

In September 2018, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN marked its 10th anniversary. It seems as if the LHC has always been present at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, which may be because the concept of developing the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator began back in the 1980s.

It was, however, only in 1994 that approval for construction was finally given and only with the help of contributions from countries such as India, Japan and the USA, was the project able to proceed in a single phase. Even so, it was still 14 years before the first official experiment was set in motion on 10 September 2008.

The LHC is made up of a ring of two beam pipes housed at an average depth of 100 m underground, in the 27 km-long tunnel built for the LHC’s predecessor, a large electron-positron collider. In the LHC, protons isolated from hydrogen atoms are added to the separate beam pipes, where they travel in opposite directions. The beam pipes operate in a vacuum, at temperatures colder than space, to ensure no resistance or loss of energy as the protons move around the ring. This enables the protons to travel close to the speed of light, accelerated by several structures, including a ring of super conducting magnets, to gradually higher and higher energy levels before they are made to collide. Collisions can occur at four different points around the ring where the two beam pipes intersect and corresponding particle detectors are located. The particle detectors monitor and record the collisions that occur and each is linked to one of four main experiments currently operating in association with the LHC.

The underlying aim behind these experiments – to improve our understanding of the Universe. A not insignificant challenge for any field of science! More specifically, one of the main goals has been to try and identify the building blocks of matter, the first particles created just after the Big Bang. The particle that scientists have been particularly keen to identify has now become well established in the public conscious – the Higgs boson.

In trying to determine how particles developed following the Big Bang, the Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) mechanism was proposed in the 1960s, providing a theory as to how particles gain mass when they interact with a quantum field, known as the Higgs field. The particle associated with this field is the Higgs boson.

Over 40 years after this mechanism was first proposed, it has been through use of the LHC that the Higgs boson was eventually discovered in July 2012, thereby confirming existence of the BEH mechanism proving how particles gain mass. The significance of this discovery and the media interest that ensued has led the Higgs boson and the field of particle physics to become well established in main stream culture. Given the significance of this discovery, it is little wonder why the 10 year anniversary of the LHC is such a milestone to particle physics and the science community as a whole.


The discovery of the Higgs boson is just one of the reasons why CERN is regarded as a leading research institute and it is evident that the technological developments originating from CERN’s scientists have many potential implications for the global community.

As with every scientific institute, CERN recognises that there is both an obligation and willingness for knowledge transfer, so that the discoveries and knowledge gained by its scientists can be disseminated to, and applied in, the real world to the benefit of the public. CERN is therefore no exception in trying to make its technologies available for both scientific and commercial purposes. An open science policy, however, requires there to be a ‘full and timely disclosure of findings and methods’ and in this regard there is often seen to be a conflict between open science and intellectual property (IP).

Two notable cases are evident from CERN’s history. In the 1970s, CERN pioneered the use of touch screens and trackballs in their computerised control systems. However, researchers were unable to progress this technology further as industrial partners were unwilling to invest, in the event that CERN would disclose this technology under the remit of their open science model. Thus, without the kinds of assurance provided by IP, touch screens and trackballs remained in house, without further development. In contrast, whilst working with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, CERN agreed to release the World Wide Web software into the public domain in 1993 and followed the next release with an open licence. The subsequent global dissemination and use of the World Wide Web speaks for itself.

These stories could suggest that only an ‘all or nothing’ outcome can be achieved when trying to marry scientific development and IP. CERN, however, have helped to demonstrate that this need not be the case.

It is clear that science institutes do not develop products and thus, there is a need for a mechanism by which the gap between science and the market place can be reduced. IP can provide a solution as to how this can be achieved. In light of its past difficulties, CERN appears to have understood that collaboration with IP is required to ensure that technology, like the trackballs, does not languish, but instead is allowed to develop further. In this way, CERN has been able to develop a good working balance between its research needs, industry and commercialisation.

A large part of this success seems to have been achieved though the establishment of their Knowledge Transfer (KT) office and in 2010, the formalisation of their IP management policy within their framework of open science. CERN identified the need to educate parties on all sides to demonstrate the benefits that can be derived from IP and to highlight that there is much more involved than just patents. This involved promoting awareness of IP in their researchers to show how it can benefit them, as well as highlighting to industry the kinds of successful collaborations that can be achieved. Having a dedicated group clearly outlining CERN’s policy regarding IP and commercial exploitation has helped to provide greater security to third parties looking to collaborate and has ultimately helped to improve, not hinder, the dissemination of CERN research.

The KT office aims to identify and promote those technologies that have strong potential for commercial development and real world application, in order to encourage investment and collaboration with third parties. This can help to ensure that technology finds a way to the public domain, even if it is not made available to the whole public domain initially. By drawing on IP, CERN is also better recognised as the source of an invention, products and services can be linked to contributions from CERN more readily, and they are better able to advertise to industry which technologies are available for exploitation.

IP has therefore become an important component of CERN’s technology transfer program. Through a combination of licensing and patenting, CERN has secured funding in industry or through start-ups to ensure technology has been developed and thus, able to reach the market place effectively and perhaps sooner than would otherwise have been possible without such exploitation. A number of spin-off companies based on CERN technologies provide strong examples of the success that can be achieved through patents and licensing opportunities.

One such example includes the development of vacuum-sealed solar panels, derived from the ultra-high vacuum technology used for the LHC. The LHC operates one of the largest ultra-high vacuum systems in the world. A vacuum is required in the accelerator to prevent particles colliding with gas molecules inside the beam pipes. It became evident that ultra-high vacuum technology was applicable to solar panels. When the patent to this technology was publicised, an investor was identified, enabling a spin-off company to be founded in partnership with CERN. Using this technology has led to significant improvements in vacuum-sealed solar panels. It has been possible to vacuum-seal flat (rather than cylindrical) solar panels, which are better for collecting light. The overall efficiency of the solar panels has also been greatly improved as they are better able to capture diffuse light and have enhanced insulation, thereby reducing heat loss. The high-temperature solar thermal panels created have been such a success that they now cover the 1200 m2 roof of Geneva Airport’s main terminal building.

Medipix is another prime example of the successful dissemination of CERN technology. Medipix3 is the latest in this family of read-out chips, derived from particle imaging and detection technology originally developed for particle tracking in the LHC. Similar to a camera, when the electronic shutter is open, Medipix3 chips detect and count individual particles hitting the pixels. Today this technology is being used in a broad range of fields, including medical imaging. This hybrid pixel-detector technology is ideally suited to the medical field where there is a demand for reliable, high-resolution images of human tissue. This technology allows patients to be scanned, producing a 3D colour image identifying the different tissues and components of the body part under examination. This can enable more accurate diagnoses and treatment of patients, particularly those with cancer. The chips are now being trialled in relation to a number of medical conditions.

These are just two examples, but it seems apparent that through the use of IP, CERN has been able to secure interest and collaboration from industrial and institutional partners to see their scientific contributions translate into real world applications. So whilst the release of scientific information may be delayed slightly, developing a strategic IP policy has provided a means by which targeted technology can be developed sufficiently to bring it to market, where its release will have a much larger impact on, and be of greater benefit to, the public.