Geek Trivia: What outside group forces the Large Hadron Collider to shut down every winter?

The Large Hadron Collider answers to an agency that forces the installation to shut down for over three weeks every winter — and for a reason most don't expect.

The outside entity with an often unexpected level of authority over the Large Hadron Collider is none other than the power company Électricité de France (EDF), which is the primary energy source for the Large Hadron Collider. Under the terms of its contract with CERN, the Large Hadron Collider's parent laboratory, EDF requires the Large Hadron Collider to cease all accelerator operations for no less than 22 days every winter. The reason? The strain that the LHC puts on the local electrical grid would impede EDF's ability to provide heat to its remaining customers during the coldest parts of the French winter.

Annually, the Large Hadron Collider consumes roughly 1,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity. That's equivalent to the annual consumption of roughly 92,000 U.S. households. No wonder EDF would rather not divert power to the Large Hadron Collider during the most taxing weeks of the year. For its part, CERN simply uses the winter months to conduct annual offline maintenance on the Large Hadron Collider.

Should CERN violate the terms of its contract with EDF and not shut down, the power company can levy some rather extraordinary fines against the lab. In a worst-case scenario, EDF could cut off the Large Hadron Collider's power supply, forcing the lab to switch to its backup energy supplier in Switzerland or, worse, its onsite diesel generators.

This is far from an ideal situation, as the Large Hadron Collider's array of superconducting magnets draw 300 megawatts of electricity, and if they were to suddenly lose power to their cooling systems, they would quickly quench, ripping themselves apart in the process. An uncontrolled coolant failure is what caused the Large Hadron Collider to endure a monthlong shutdown mere days after coming online in September 2008. In other words, CERN wants to stay in EDF's good graces, just in case its failover systems aren't perfect.

That's not just a static-charged sword of Damocles, it's a contractually constricting case of Geek Trivia.

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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...