It's All In The Magnets

At the heart of the SSC are nearly 11,000 superconducting mag nets laid end to end that will produce powerful magnetic fields. These will speed two streams of protons around the machine in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. The idea is to smash the proton beams together in a cataclysmic collision echoing the Big Bang itself. This will create a whirlwind of exotic particles that may help scientists identify the mysterious dark matter that comprises 90% of the universe and develop the so-called Theory of Everything, an explanation for all the forces in nature.

It all depends on the magnets. Because they operate in series, like old-fashioned Christmas-tree lights, one bad one could shut the SSC down. That's why scientists worried when some early prototypes failed to carry enough current. The reason: The huge magnetic fields create stresses that can move parts of the magnet. The resulting friction creates enough heat to destroy its superconducting ability--a phenomenon known as quenching.

So physicists redesigned the magnets, increasing their size and cost. In recent experiments, test magnets have carried more than the required current. "They are coming along very well," says SSC Director Roy F. Schwitters. Next, Brookhaven National Laboratory will build a full-scale, 16-meter-long magnet for trials in October. Then will come the biggest test of all: mass-producing magnets that work as well as hand-built prototypes do.

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