The energy crisis is pressing down on science at CERN and other major facilities

Pressure gauge at the CERN refrigerant plant.

A pressure gauge in the Large Hadron Collider, which consumes more than half of the electricity consumption in the accelerator.Credit: Adam Hart Davis/SPL

With energy prices soaring as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, potentially causing a global economic downturn and stoking fears of blackouts – especially in Europe – scientific laboratories are not being spared. The situation has caused particular concern at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory outside Geneva, Switzerland, which already has huge energy bills in normal years.

On September 26, CERN’s board of directors agreed to drastically reduce the facility’s energy consumption in 2022 and 2023, after EDF, the French electricity supplier, asked the laboratory to reduce the load on its grid. The board decided to introduce the lab’s annual end-of-year technical shutdown for two weeks, through November 28, and reduce operations by 20% in 2023 – which will mostly be accomplished by closing four weeks early next year, in mid-November. . Operations will resume as planned at the end of February, in both 2023 and 2024.

CERN has also developed plans with EDF for reduced power configurations, should energy use need to be further restricted in the coming months. Smaller measures are being taken to reduce overall energy use on the CERN campus, including turning off streetlights at night and delaying the start of building heating by one week.

keep cool

CERN’s main machine, the 27-kilometre Large Hadron Collider, is a major electricity greedy, in large part because 27MW liquid helium cooling system, the largest of its kind in the world. During normal operations, CERN’s annual electricity consumption is about 1.3 TWh (for comparison, neighboring Geneva uses about 3 TWh per year). The LHC’s annual maintenance intervals are set during the winter months to save on your bills. Consumption drops to around 0.5 TW during longer lockdowns, as it did in 2020-22. After extensive upgrades, LHC has been restarted In April, the total cost of electricity is expected to be about 88.5 million Swiss francs (US$89 million), says Joachim Menisch, director of research and computing at CERN. The reduction in operations will cut that significantly next year, albeit not by the full 20%, because accelerator magnets still need to be kept cool while the facility is down.

The move will help save money amid rising energy prices, but Mnish says cost was not the main driver of the decision. Natural gas is the main source of electricity and winter heating in much of Europe, and CERN wants to reduce their use of limited supplies, leaving more for people to heat their homes. “This is something we do not primarily to save money, but as a sign of social responsibility,” he says.

Longer shutdowns will affect scientists who rely on other CERN accelerators for their experiments. Mnich says that those scheduled during the last two weeks of this year’s run will have to be postponed until next year, and the competition for next year’s low beam time will be fiercer than usual. The total number of proton-proton collisions at the LHC will be lower than normal this year and next, but Mnich doesn’t expect that to have a significant impact on science. “Over the entirety of Term 3, which runs through the end of 2025, there is likely to be only a small impact,” he says.

Energy prices are also rising dramatically in the UK, although institutions there are not saying how this will affect their operations in the short term. A spokesperson for Imperial College London says that although the university, like all large institutions, is affected by rising energy costs, “we are confident of our resilience and ability to respond to the challenge”. The Science and Technology Facilities Council, which operates several large facilities, including Didcot’s Diamon Light Source, says all of its facilities “have been working on plans to reduce power for a number of years to meet their zero net commitments and reduce cost.”

tension belts

The German Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg is also affected by the price hike. The facility buys much of its electricity in tranches of up to three years in advance, to hedge against sudden price hikes. So it has already bought 80% of its energy needs for 2023, 60% for 2024 and 40% for 2025. But the lab will need to make a decision soon on whether to buy the remaining 20% ​​for next year, says Wim Lemanns, division director Accelerators. “At the current prices, we cannot afford it,” he says.

DESY is in talks with the German government for additional funding to continue operations, which are making important scientific contributions in areas deemed essential to Europe’s future, such as the development of COVID-19 vaccines, battery technology and solar energy, Leemans points out. But its managers are also preparing for the worst. Next week, they will run tests to see how operating instruments such as the European X-ray Free-Electron Laser and PETRA III synchrotron at low power settings can affect the experiments. And as a last resort, DESY is also considering a longer winter vacation, like CERN. “We do our best to make sure our 3,000 users aren’t left to dry,” Leemans says.

Research facilities in other parts of the world are also dealing with rising energy costs. Electricity costs are a “significant” part of the lab’s annual budget, says Bill Mateko, chief operating officer of Canadian Light Source (CLS) in Saskatoon. Although Canada’s domestic energy production, especially natural gas, means the situation there is not as severe as in Europe, prices are still on the rise due to high inflation – electricity rates rose 4% on September 1, and will rise again by another 4% by April 1 next year. Mateko says about half of that increase was expected and budgeted. “It’s something we can fairly easily accommodate by shifting things around in the budget,” he says.

Mateko says CLS, like many large, energy-intensive facilities, has been improving energy efficiency over the past several years. For example, all the lamps in the facility have been replaced with LEDs, and the cooling units have been converted to new superconducting refrigeration devices that are more energy efficient. “These have big savings in terms of energy consumption,” he says. “Energy bills are a fraction of what you could be otherwise.”

Labs in North America, such as CLS, will not need to reduce runtime, but they will likely not be able to accommodate European scientists who are losing beam time. Mateko says the CLS has already been oversubscribed. With the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois, shutting down in April 2023 for a upgrade for at least 12 months, beam time in North America is about to be restricted as well. “Some APS users really want to access our packages,” says Mateko. “There will be a huge increase in demand for us and for others.”

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