A Swiss atom smasher has set a record for the most intense beam of particles ever fired and come a step closer to confirming -- or eliminating - the Higgs boson, otherwise known as the God particle.

At just after midnight on Friday, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) fired a stream of protons through the Large Hadron Collider's 17-mile-long loop. By the time they hit each other they were moving at 99.9999991 percent the speed of light.

The LHC reached 4.67 × 1032 collisions per square centimeter each second, breaking the previous record of 4.024 × 1032, set by the U.S. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory's Tevatron collider in 2010 for the highest luminosity ever achieved in a particle accelerator.

The luminosity of the beam is important because the more collisions per second there are, the greater chance there is of observing rare events. One such event is the appearance of Higgs boson. Higgs particles will be produced very rarely -- if they exist.

If scientists find the Higgs boson, it will prove that the Standard Model, which has been a cornerstone of particle physics for decades, is correct. The standard model says that the Higgs boson is the reason that some particles -- and the atoms of which they are made -- have any mass at all, and why photons do not. No experiment has directly observed the Higgs boson yet. The Higgs is called the God particle after the title of a book by American physicist Leon Lederman, in part becuase it would help unify several branches of physics by proving the Standard Model.

The LHC will keep running experiments through the end of 2012. By that time enough collisions will have happened that it should be clear if the Higgs exists or not.

The beams have a certain amount of energy in them, and the LHC is designed to ratchet that up with each set of experiments. The current run is exploring energies of 3.5 tera electron volts (TeV), but the LHC can be dialed up to 7 TeV. Since the protons in the accelerator beam are approaching from opposite directions, that's a total of 14 TeV, enough, scientists hope, to simulate conditions that existed a tiny fraction of a second after the universe began.

There's a great deal of excitement at CERN today, said CERN's Director for Research and Scientific Computing, Sergio Bertolucci, in a statement, and a tangible feeling that we're on the threshold of new discovery.