- Particle colliders smash charged particles against one another at nearly the speed of light to reveal some of their fundamental properties.
- The only operating one in the US is Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider . It will shut down in 2024 to make room for the new machine, which could be operational by 2030.
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A machine that will investigate the forces that hold matter together finally has a home.
On Thursday, the US Department of Energy announced that the long-awaited Electron-Ion Collider (EIC), a type of particle accelerator, will be constructed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.
Scientists use particle colliders to study the origins of our universe and investigate the makeup of atoms. The design for the new machine calls for an underground ring that steers protons and electrons toward one another at nearly the speed of light.
When the subatomic particles collide head-on, they melt into a hot soup the same type of plasma that formed immediately after the Big Bang. For this reason, physicist Stephen Hawking once compared particle colliders to time machines .
Brookhaven clenched the coveted role as the machine's home and designer, beating out the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. Brookhaven is already home to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC; pronounced "Rick"): the only operating particle collider in the US.
That underground ring stretches 2.4 miles. It's function is slightly different than the EIC; instead of smashing protons and electrons together, the RHIC hurtles beams of gold ions toward one another. Each ion makes around 80,000 loops around the ring per second, before colliding in a similar explosion of subatomic particles.
A new giant particle collider
The new Electron-Ion Collider will replace the RHIC at Brookhaven; the laboratory plans to permanently shutter the RHIC in 2024. The old machine took eight years and an estimated $617 million to build. The new one is expected cost between $1.6 billion and $2.6 billion, according to the Department of Energy, and be operational by 2030.
To construct the EIC, Brookhaven won't start entirely from scratch it plans to keep one of the rings from the RHIC. That ring will fire off protons, which will eventually collide with electrons from a new accelerator that has yet to be built.
These collisions will give scientists more precise, 3D snapshots of the building blocks that form protons and electrons. Brookhaven compared the technology to "a CT scanner for atoms."
Scientists already know that protons are made up of even tinier particles called quarks, which are glued together by particles called gluons. The force that holds these quarks together is more than 100 times more powerful than the electromagnetic force that powers x-rays, radio waves, and visible light. It's the strongest and most mysterious force in nature.
Scientists hope the EIC scanner will give them a better understanding of how quarks and gluons are arranged and why they're bound so tightly.
The mystery of protons' spin
Researchers are also hoping the machine can help them solve a decades-long riddle.
Protons spin in a similar way to how Earth rotates around the sun. The quarks inside the protons spin, too but this motion only accounts for about a quarter of the total spin of the proton itself. Physicists have been trying to explain why for more than 30 years.
The EIC could make it possible to control protons so that they're spinning at a similar angle when they collide a feat that hasn't been accomplished before. Scientists hope this will shed more light on what's come to be known as the "spin crisis."
Unraveling these mysteries has practical applications outside the laboratory, too. Learning more about at atom's structure could help scientists figure out how to zap cancer cells, improve batteries and electronics, or power future technologies that haven't even been imagined yet.
"Until we have the EIC, there are huge areas of nuclear physics that we are not going to make progress in," Donald Geesaman, the former chair of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee, told the journal Nature .
But the new particle collider is not a done deal yet. Congress still needs to approve the budget and the Department of Energy will have to sign off on the design and construction timeline.
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