"The most exciting thing of all," says Professor Peter Watkins with a smile, "is we have absolutely no idea what will happen until we switch it on."

When you realise that the University of Birmingham academic is referring to the world's largest particle physics experiment, it is a little disconcerting.

After 13 years of planning and construction, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is due to begin its work in the spring of 2008.

Based at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, the massive 27-kilometre underground tunnel is equivalent in length to London Tube's Circle Line. Its job is to help physicists recreate the conditions of the universe, one billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

The project has involved international collaboration on a mammoth scale and the West Midlands has had its role to play. The University of Birmingham has teams working on two of the four sensors that will be used to monitor the collisions.

Many rumours and myths have built up around CERN and about what may happen when the LHC becomes operational. These include the anecdote that the accelerator could create a large black hole that will swallow up the Earth.

Certainly the sheer scale and size of the tunnel and its four sensors could be enough to persuade the uninitiated that the LHC is quite capable of such powerful destruction.

"The Large Hadron Collider project has four experiments in it - two are specialist experiments and two are very general experiments that study everything that we hope we'll see at high energy," explains Prof Watkins.

"One of these general experiments is called CMS, the other is ATLAS. So, you can see, the LHC project is pushing knowledge of matter to the smallest scale yet studied on Earth."

The role of the Birmingham team's electronic boards is to decide which matter to study by choosing which collisions to record in less than a millionth of a second.

Because of the constraints of computer processing speed, only 200 of the 1,000 million collisions that are expected to take place every second will be recorded. The university's trigger sensor system is what chooses which 200 collisions it will record.

But even whittling the number of collisions down, the experiment will still produce an enormous amount of data to be analysed: 15 million gigabytes of data, equivalent to a 20 kilometre-high stack of CDs.

One of the better-known reasons why physicists want to monitor these collisions is to search for the Higgs boson or the "God Particle".

The theory of the existence of the Higgs particle was developed back in 1964, but so far it has never been seen.

If it does, it may provide the key to why everything in the universe - including people - has mass.

Edinburgh University professor Peter Higgs suggested mass was created by a field - like the gravitational field - and particles that interact with this field, such as protons, have mass whereas those that do not interact, such as light particles, have no mass.

Finding the Higgs boson would complete the jigsaw of what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics.

If it doesn't exist, then a major part of physics will have to be re-written.

"If the Higgs exists we won't actually be able to see it with our sensors," explains Prof Watkins, "but we should be able to calculate if it was there by monitoring the speed, energy and mass of other particles."

Other areas of research include trying to discover the nature of the mysterious "Dark Matter", which makes up 90 per cent of the universe.

Although scientists have theories as to what particles might make up Dark Matter, none have been found in sufficient quantities to be able to prove them.

One candidate for Dark Matter is WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) and it is thought that some may be created in the LHC.

A particular type of WIMP that physicists will be keeping an eye out for is the neutralino. Although it will pass straight through the detectors, this heavy particle would carry off energy with it, that scientists should be able to calculate is missing from the particles that remain.

"It is like studying the wreckage of a car crash, without knowing what a car looks like, or how it works," explains Dr David Evans, leader of the Birmingham University team working on the ALICE sensor.

"We have to look monitor the particles that come out of these collisions and use them to work out what other particles they came from."

Dr Evan's team is the only UK presence on the ALICE project, which will look at the hot, dense mixture of particles called quark-gluon plasma that physicists believe existed just after the Big Bang.

It will do this by monitoring the collisions of the nuclei of lead atoms. These collisions will take place in about three out of every 12 months that the LHC runs.

"In the very early universe about a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, it was so hot and dense that normal matter as we know it melts and you have this soup of quarks and gluons," explains Dr Evans.

"By colliding ions together we actually create mini big bangs where matter will melt and will form this quark-gluon plasma in the centre of ALICE."

By studying this plasma, physicists hope to learn more about something called the strong force - one of the four known fundamental forces, which also include gravity.

But, insists Dr Evans, these collisions are unlikely to create anything as disastrous as a full-sized black hole.

"Although the LHC is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built by man the universe provides us with far more powerful particle accelerators," he says.

"All the time huge numbers of particles from outer space are interacting with the earth's atmosphere in the form of cosmic rays.

"Many of these are at far higher energies than the LHC will create. So, if the LHC was able to create a black hole that destroyed the planet this would have already happened with the particles colliding with the Earth."

But, that doesn't mean the LHC won't be able to create any black holes. The accelerator should be able to create smaller ones that, unlike their bigger counterparts, absorb more material than they emit and quickly vaporise. It is hoped the LHC will allow physicists to study these "baby black holes" in more detail.

Constructed between 50 and 175 metres underground and spanning across the Swiss-French border, the space and material that the LHC consumes is phenomenal n Just one sensor, ATLAS, fills a cavern large enough to hold the nave of Westminster Abbey. It is here that Prof Watkins' team works, developing the trigger sensors that will choose which of the millions of particle collisions that will occur in the LHC to monitor n ATLAS is one of the largest collaborative projects ever undertaken, with 1,800 physicists from 150 universities and laboratories in 34 countries working on its construction n The sensor is designed to monitor the collisions between two beams made of protons - the positively charged particles in atoms. These beams - powered by magnets and travelling around the tunnel in a vacuum - will have the energy equivalent to an aircraft carrier travelling at 11 knots n Every time the beams cross, two bunches containing 100 billion protons will crash into each other.

This will be happening 40 million times a second

The CERN Fact File