FCC: the physics case

27 March 2024

From understanding the structure of the elementary blocks of matter and the forces acting between them, to exhaustively probing the existence of new phenomena at low and high energies, the Future Circular Collider offers unique exploration of space, time and matter.

A detector concept for FCC-ee
On point A detector concept for FCC-ee, a collider operating at energies from 90 to 365 GeV. Credit: PixerRise

Results from the LHC so far have transformed the particle-physics landscape. The discovery of the Higgs boson with a mass of 125 GeV – in agreement with the prediction from earlier precision measurements at LEP and other colliders – has completed the long-predicted matrix of particles and interactions of the Standard Model (SM) and cleared the decks for a new phase of exploration. On the other hand, the lack of evidence for an anticipated supporting cast of particles beyond the SM (BSM) gives no clear guidance as to what form this exploration may take. For the first time since the Fermi theory almost a century ago, particle physicists are voyaging into completely uncharted territory, where our only compass is the certitude that the SM in isolation cannot account for all observations. This absence of theoretical guidance calls for a powerful experimental programme to push the frontiers of the unknown as far as possible.

The absence of LHC signals for new phenomena in the TeV range requires physicists to think differently about the open questions in fundamental physics. These include the abundance of matter over antimatter, the nature of dark matter, the quark and lepton flavour puzzle in general, and the non-zero nature of neutrino masses in particular. Solutions could be at even higher energies, at the price of either an unnatural value of the electroweak scale or an ingenious but still elusive structure. Radically new physics scenarios have been devised, often involving light and very-weakly coupled structures. Neither the mass scale (from meV to ZeV) of this new physics nor the intensity of its couplings (from 1 to 10–12 or less) to the SM are known, calling for a versatile exploration tool.

An illustration of a detector for FCC-hh

By providing considerable advances in sensitivity, precision and, eventually, energy far above the TeV scale, the integrated Future Circular Collider (FCC) programme is the perfect vehicle with which to navigate this new landscape. Its first stage FCC-ee, an e+e collider operating at centre-of-mass energies ranging from below the Z pole (90 GeV) to beyond the top-quark pair-production threshold (365 GeV), would map the properties of the Higgs and electroweak gauge bosons and the top quark with precisions that are orders of magnitude better than today, acquiring sensitivity to the processes that led to the formation of the Brout–Englert–Higgs field a fraction of a nanosecond after the Big Bang. A comprehensive campaign of precision electroweak, QCD, flavour, tau, Higgs and top-quark measurements sensitive to tiny deviations from the predicted SM behaviour would probe energy scales far beyond the direct kinematic reach, while a subsequent pp collider (FCC-hh) would improve – by about an order of magnitude – the direct discovery reach for new particles. Both machines are strongly motivated in their own rights. Together, they offer the furthest physics reach of all proposed future colliders, and put the fundamental scalar sector of the universe centre-stage.

A scalar odyssey

The power of FCC-ee to probe the Higgs boson and other SM particles at much higher resolution would allow physicists to peer further into the cloud of quantum fluctuations surrounding them. The combination of results from previous lepton and hadron colliders at CERN and elsewhere has shown that electroweak symmetry breaking is consistent with its SM parameterisation, but its origin (and the origin of the Higgs boson itself) demands a deeper explanation. The FCC is uniquely placed to address this mystery via a combination of per-mil-level Higgs-boson and parts-per-millon gauge-boson measurements, along with direct high-energy exploration, to comprehensively probe symmetry-based explanations for an electroweak hierarchy. In particular, measurements of the Higgs boson’s self-coupling at the FCC would test whether the electroweak phase transition was first- or second-order, revealing whether it could have potentially played a role in setting the out-of-equilibrium condition necessary for creating the matter–antimatter asymmetry.

FCC-ee baseline design luminosity

While the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism nicely explains the pattern of gauge-boson masses, the peculiar structure of quark and lepton masses (as well as the quark mixing angles) is ad hoc within the SM and could be the low-energy imprint of some new dynamics. The FCC will probe such potential new symmetries and forces, in particular via detailed studies of b and τ decays and of b → τ transitions, and significantly extend knowledge of flavour physics. A deeper understanding of approximate conservation laws such as baryon- and lepton-number conservation (or the absence thereof in the case of Majorana neutrinos) would test the limits of lepton-flavour universality and violation, for example, and could reveal new selection rules governing the fundamental laws. Measuring the first- and second-generation Yukawa couplings will also be crucial to complete our understanding, with a potential FCC-ee run at the s-channel Higgs resonance offering the best sensitivity to the electron Yukawa coupling. Stepping back, the FCC would sharpen understanding of the SM as a low-energy effective field theory approximation of a deeper, richer theory by extending the reach of direct and indirect exploration by about one order of magnitude.

The unprecedented statistics from FCC-ee also make it uniquely sensitive to exploring weakly coupled dark sectors and other candidates for new physics beyond the SM (such as heavy axions, dark photons and long-lived particles). Decades of searches across different experiments have pushed the mass of the initially favoured dark-matter candidate (weakly interacting massive particles, WIMPs) progressively beyond the reach of the highest energy e+e colliders. As a consequence, hidden sectors consisting of new particles that interact almost imperceptibly with the SM are rapidly gaining popularity as an alternative that could hold the answer not only to this problem but to a variety of others, such as the origin of neutrino masses. If dark matter is a doublet or a triplet WIMP, FCC-hh would cover the entire parameter space up to the upper mass limit for thermal relic. The FCC could also host a range of complementary detector facilities to extend its capabilities for neutrino physics, long-lived particles and forward physics.

For the first time since the Fermi theory almost a century ago, particle physicists are voyaging into completely uncharted territory

Completing this brief, high-level summary of the FCC physics reach are the origins of exotic astrophysical and cosmological signals, such as stochastic gravitational waves from cosmological phase transitions or astrophysical signatures of high-energy gamma rays. These phenomena, which include a modified electroweak phase transition, confining new physics in a dark sector, or annihilating TeV-scale WIMPs, could arise due to new physics which is directly accessible only to an energy-frontier facility.

Precision rules

Back in 2011, the original incarnation of a circular e+e collider to follow the LHC (dubbed LEP3) was to create a high-luminosity Higgs factory operating at 240 GeV in the LEP/LHC tunnel, providing similar precision to that at a linear collider running at the same centre-of-mass energy for a much smaller price tag. Choosing to build a larger 80–100 km version not only allows the tunnel and infrastructure to be reused for a 100 TeV hadron collider, but extends the FCC-ee scientific reach significantly beyond the study of the Higgs boson alone. The unparalleled control of the centre-of-mass energy via the use of resonant depolarisation and the unrivalled luminosity of an FCC-ee with four interaction points would produce around 6 × 1012 Z bosons, 2.4 × 108 W pairs (offering ppm precision on the Z and W masses and widths), 2 × 106 Higgs bosons and 2 × 106 top-quark pairs (impossible to produce with e+e collisions in the LEP/LHC tunnel) in as little as 16 years.

FCC-hh discovery reach

From the Fermi interaction to the discovery of the W and Z, and from electroweak measurements to the discovery of the top quark and the Higgs boson, greater precision has operated as a route to discoveries. Any deviation from the SM predictions, interpreted as the manifestation of new contact interactions, will point to a new energy scale that will be explored directly in a later stage. One of the findings of the FCC feasibility study is the richness of the FCC-ee Z-pole run, which promises comprehensive measurements of the Z lineshape and many electroweak observables with a 50-fold increase in precision, as well as direct and uniquely precise determinations of the electromagnetic and strong coupling constants. The comparison between these data and commensurately precise SM predictions would severely constrain the existence of new physics via virtual loops or mixing, corresponding to a factor-of-seven increase in energy scale – a jump similar to that from the LHC to FCC-hh. The Z-pole run also enables otherwise unreachable flavour (b, τ) physics, studies of QCD and hadronisation, searches for rare or forbidden decays, and exploration of the dark sector.

After the Z-pole run, the W boson provides a further precision tool at FCC-ee. Its mass is one of the most precisely measured parameters that can be calculated in the SM and is thus of utmost importance. In the planned WW-threshold run, current knowledge can be improved by more than an order of magnitude to test the SM as well as a plethora of new-physics models at a higher quantum level. Together, the very-high-luminosity Z and W runs will determine the gauge-boson sector with the sharpest precision ever.

Going to its highest energy, FCC-ee would explore physics associated with the heaviest known particle, the top quark, whose mass plays a fundamental role in the prediction of SM processes and for the cosmological fate of the vacuum. An improvement in precision by more than an order of magnitude will go hand in hand with a significant improvement in the strong coupling constant, and is crucial for precision exploration beyond the SM.

High-energy synergies

A later FCC-hh stage would complement and substantially extend the FCC-ee physics reach in nearly all areas. Compared to the LHC, it would increase the energy for direct exploration by a factor of seven, with the potential to observe new particles with masses up to 40 TeV (see “Direct exploration” figure). The day FCC-hh directly finds a signal for beyond-SM physics, the precision measurements from FCC-ee will be essential to pinpoint its microscopic origin. Indirectly, FCC-hh will be sensitive to energies of around 100 TeV, for example in the tails of Drell–Yan distributions. The large production of SM particles, including the Higgs boson, at large transverse momentum allows measurements to be performed in kinematic regions with optimal signal-to-background ratio and reduced experimental systematic uncertainties, testing the existence of effective contact interactions in ways that are complementary to what is accessible at lepton colliders. Dedicated FCC-hh experiments, for instance with forward detectors, would enrich further the new-physics opportunities and hunt for long-lived and millicharged particles.

Minimal potential physics programme for FCC-ee

Further increasing the synergies between FCC-ee and FCC-hh is the importance of operating four detectors (instead of two as in the conceptual design study), which has led to an optimised ring layout with a new four-fold period­icity. With four interaction points, FCC-ee provides a net gain in integrated luminosity for a given physics outcome. It also allows for a range of detector solutions to cover all physics opportunities, strengthens the robustness of systematic-uncertainty estimates and discovery claims, and opens several key physics targets that are tantalisingly close (but missed) with only two detectors. The latter include the first 5σ observation of the Higgs-boson self-coupling, and the opportunity to access the Higgs-boson coupling to electrons – one of FCC-ee’s toughest physics challenges.

No physics case for FCC would be complete without a thorough assessment of the corresponding detector challenges. A key deliverable of the feasibility study is a complete set of specifications ensuring that calorimeters, tracking and vertex detectors, muon detectors, luminometers and particle-identification devices meet the physics requirements. In the context of a Higgs factory operating at the ZH production threshold and above, these requirements have already been studied extensively for proposed linear colliders. However, the different experimental environment and the huge statistics of FCC-ee demand that they are revisited. The exquisite statistical uncertainties anticipated on key electroweak measurements at the Z peak and at the WW threshold call for a superb control of the systematic uncertainties, which will put considerable demands on the acceptance, construction quality and stability of the detectors. In addition, the specific discovery potential for very weakly coupled particles must be kept in mind.

The software and computing demands of FCC are an integral element of the feasibility study. From the outset, the driving consideration has been to develop a single software “ecosystem” adaptable to any future collider and usable by any future experiment, based on the best software available. Some tools, such as flavour tagging, significantly exceed the performance of algorithms previously used for linear-collider studies, but there is still much work needed  to bring the software to the level required by the FCC-ee. This includes the need for more accurate simulations of beam-related quantities, the machine-detector interface and the detectors themselves. In addition, various reconstruction and analysis tools for use by all collaborators need to be developed and implemented, reaping the benefits from the LHC experience and past linear-collider studies, and computing resources for regular simulated data production need to be evaluated.

Powerful plan

The alignment of stars – that from the initial concept in 2011/2012 of a 100 km-class electron–positron collider in the same tunnel as a future 100 TeV proton–proton collider led to the 2020 update of the European strategy for particle physics endorsing the FCC feasibility study as a top priority for CERN and its international partners – provides the global high-energy physics community with the most powerful exploration tool. FCC-ee offers ideal conditions (luminosity, centre-of-mass energy calibration, multiple experiments and possibly monochromatisation) for the study of the four heaviest particles of the SM with a flurry of opportunities for precision measurements, searches for rare or forbidden processes, and the possible discovery of feebly coupled particles. It is also the perfect springboard for a 100 TeV hadron collider, for which it provides a great part of the infrastructure. Strongly motivated in their own rights, together these two machines offer a uniquely powerful long-term plan for 21st-century particle physics.

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