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US Department of Energy Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

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The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC, pronounced like "rick", is a heavy-ion Collider located at and operated by Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Upton, New York. By using RHIC to collide ions travelling at relativistic speeds, physicists study the primordial form of matter that existed in the universe shortly after the Big Bang, and also the structure of protons.

The RHIC project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of science, Office of Nuclear physics. It had a line-item budget of 616.6 million US dollars. The annual operational budgets were:

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.
The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Some of the superconducting magnets were manufactured by Northrop Grumman Corp. at Bethpage, New York. Note especially the second, independent ring behind the blue striped one.
  • fiscal year 2005: 131.6 million US dollars.
  • fiscal year 2006: 115.5 million US dollars.
  • fiscal year 2007, requested: 143.3 million US dollars.

The total investment by 2005 is approximately 1.1 billion US dollars. Though operation under the fiscal year 2006 federal budget cut was uncertain, a key portion of the operational cost (13 million US dollars) was contributed privately by a group close to Renaissance Technologies of East Setauket, New York.

At present, RHIC is the most powerful heavy-ion collider in the world. It is also distinctive in its capability to collide Spin-polarized protons.

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider: The accelerator.

RHIC is an intersecting storage ring (ISR) particle accelerator. Two independent rings (arbitrarily denoted as "blue" and "yellow" rings, see also the photograph) allow a virtually free choice of colliding projectiles. The RHIC double storage ring is itself hexagonally shaped and 3834 m long in circumference, with curved edges in which stored particles are deflected by 1,740 superconducting niobium titanium magnets. The 6 interaction points are at the middle of the 6 relatively straight sections, where the two rings cross, allowing the particles to collide. The interaction points are enumerated by clock positions, with the injection point at '6 o'clock'. 2 interaction points are unused and left for further expansion (refer also to the RHIC Complex diagram).

A particle passes through several stages of boosters before it reaches the RHIC storage ring. The first stage for ions is the Tandem Van de Graaff accelerator, while for protons, the 200 MeV linear accelerator (Linac) is used. As an example, gold nuclei leaving the Tandem Van de Graaff have an energy of about 1 MeV per nucleon and have an electric charge Q = +32 (32 Electrons stripped from the gold atom). The particles are then accelerated by the Booster synchrotron to 95 MeV per nucleon, which injects the projectile now with Q = +77 into the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS), before they finally reach 8.86 GeV per nucleon and are injected in a Q = +79 state (no electrons left) into the RHIC storage ring over the AGS-To-RHIC Transfer Line (ATR), sitting at the 6 o'clock position.

The main types of particle combinations used at RHIC are p + p, d + Au, Cu + Cu and Au + Au. The projectiles typically travel at a speed of 99.995% of the speed of light in vacuum. For Au + Au collision, the center-of-mass energy is typically 200 GeV (or 100 GeV per nucleon); a luminosity of 2  1026 cm-2 s-1 was targeted during the planning. The current luminosity performance of the collider is 2.96  1026 cm-2 s-1 (PHENIX). A center-of-mass energy of 400 GeV was briefly achieved during Run-5, colliding protons.

One unique characteristic of RHIC is its capability to produce polarized protons. RHIC holds the record of highest energy polarized protons. Polarized protons are injected into RHIC and preserving this state throughout the energy ramp is difficult task that can only be accomplished with the aid of Siberian Snakes (a chain of solenoids and quadrupoles for aligning particles) and AC dipoles. The AC dipoles have been also used in non-linear machine diagnostics for the first time in RHIC.

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider: The experiments.

ion beam collisions.
First gold ion beam-beam collisions at a Momentum of 100 + 100 GeV/c per nucleon on STAR showing hadronized charged particle debris curving in the magnetic field of the instrument.

There are four detectors at RHIC: STAR (6 o'clock, and near the ATR), PHENIX (8 o'clock, pronounced like "Phoenix",), PHOBOS (10 o'clock), and BRAHMS (2 o'clock). Three of them are still active, with PHOBOS having completed its operation after 2005 and run-5.

Among the two larger detectors, STAR is aimed in the detection of hadrons with its system of time projection chambers covering a large solid angle and in a conventionally generated solenoidal magnetic field, while PHENIX is further specialized in detecting rare and electromagnetic particles, using a partial coverage detector system in a superconductively generated axial magnetic field. The smaller detectors have larger pseudorapidity coverage, PHOBOS has the largest pseudorapidity coverage of all detectors, and tailored for bulk particle multiplicity measurement, while BRAHMS is designed for momentum spectroscopy, in order to study the so called "small-x" and saturation physics. There is an additional experiment PP2PP, investigating Spin dependence in p + p scattering.

The spokespersons for each of the experiments are:

  • STAR: Timothy Hallman (Brookhaven National Laboratory, Physics Department).
  • PHENIX: William A. Zajc (Columbia University, Department of Physics and Nevis Laboratories).
  • PHOBOS: Wit Busza (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Physics and MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Science).
  • BRAHMS: Flemming Videbaek (Brookhaven National Laboratory, Physics Department).
  • PP2PP: Wlodek Guryn (Brookhaven National Laboratory, Physics Department).

Current results

For a complementary discussion, see also quark-gluon plasma.

For the experimental objective of creating and studying the quark-gluon plasma, RHIC has the unique ability to provide baseline measurements for itself. This consists of the both lower energy and also lower mass number projectile combinations that do not result in the density of 200 GeV Au + Au collisions, like the p + p and d + Au collisions of the earlier runs, and also Cu + Cu collisions in Run-5.

Using this approach, important results of the measurement of the hot QCD matter created at RHIC are:

  • Collective anisotropy, or elliptic flow. The multiplicity of the particles' bulk with lower momenta exhibits a dependency as (pT is the transverse momentum,f angle with the reaction plane). This is a direct result of the elliptic shape of the nucleus overlap region during the collision and hydrodynamical property of the matter created.
  • Jet quenching. In the heavy ion collision event, scattering with a high transverse pT can serve as a probe for the hot QCD matter, as it loses its energy while travelling through the medium. Experimentally, the quantity RAA (A is the mass number) being the quotient of observed jet yield in A + A collisions and Nbin  yield in p + p collisions shows a strong damping with increasing A, which is an indication of the new properties of the hot QCD matter created.
  • Color glass condensate saturation. The Balitsky-Fadin-Kuraev-Lipatov (BFKL) dynamics which are the result of a resummation of large logarithmic terms in Q2 for deep inelastic scattering with small Bjorken-x, saturate at a unitarity limit , with Npart/2 being the number of participant nucleons in a collision (as opposed to the number of binary collisions). The observed charged multiplicity follows the expected dependency of , supporting the predictions of the color glass condensate model. For a detailed discussion, see e.g. Kharzeev et al.; for an overview of color glass condensates, see e.g. Iancu & Venugopalan.
  • Particle ratios. The particle ratios predicted by statistical models allow the calculation of parameters such as the temperature at chemical freeze-out Tch and hadron chemical potentialB. The experimental value Tch varies a bit with the model used, with most authors giving a value of 160 MeV < Tch < 180 MeV, which is very close to the expected QCD phase transition value of approximately 170 MeV obtained by lattice QCD calculations (see e.g. Karsch).

While in the first years, theorists are eager to claim RHIC as having discovered the quark-gluon plasma (e.g. Gyulassy & McLarren), the experimental groups were more careful not to jump to conclusions, citing various variables still in need of further measurement. The present results shows that the matter created being a fluid with a viscosity near the quantum limit, but unlike a weakly interacting plasma (a widespread yet not quantitatively unfounded belief how quark gluon plasma looks like).

A recent overview of the physics result is e.g. provided by the RHIC Experimental Evaluations 2004, a community-wide effort of RHIC experiments to evaluate the current data in the context of implication for formation of a new state of matter. These results are from the first three years of data collection at RHIC.

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider: The future.

RHIC began operation in 2000 and is currently the most powerful heavy-ion collider in the world. It is expected, however, that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of CERN will provide significantly higher energies once completed, essentially superceding RHIC.

However, RHIC will likely remain unique in various fields that the LHC in the present state will not be able to cover. Unlike RHIC, LHC is unable to accelerate spin polarized protons, which would leave RHIC remaining as the world's highest energy accelerator for studying spin-polarized proton structure. And ALICE, the dedicated heavy ion detector at LHC, unlike STAR and PHENIX, lacks a calorimeter for jet tomographic studies. As a result, heavy ion studies with the hadronic detectors of LHC has been proposed, also a calorimeter upgrade with partial angular coverage has been proposed for ALICE.

Two planned upgrades should enhance the future scientific output of RHIC in these areas:

  • RHIC-II: An upgrade that will increase the luminosity by a further factor of 10, together with upgrades to the detectors STAR and PHENIX.
  • eRHIC: Construction of a 10 GeV high intensity electron/positron beam facility, allowing electron-ion collisions. At least one new detector will have to be built to study the collisions. A recent review is given by A. Deshpande et al..

In October 2006, the Interim Director of BNL, Sam Aronson has contested the claim in a Physics Today report that "Tevatron is unlikely to outlive the decade. Neither is ... the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider", referring to a report of the National Research Council.

Fears among the public

Before RHIC started operation, there were fears among the public that the extremely high energy could produce one of the following catastrophic scenarios:

  • RHIC creates a black hole.
  • RHIC creates a transition into a different quantum mechanical vacuum (see False vacuum).
  • RHIC creates strange matter that is more stable than ordinary matter.

The (extremely) hypothetical theories are complex, but they predict that at least the Earth would be destroyed within seconds. However, the fact that objects of the Solar System (e.g. the Moon) have been bombarded with cosmic particles of significantly higher energies than that of RHIC for billions of years, without any harm to the Solar System, were among the most striking arguments that these hypotheses were unfounded.

The other main issue in the controversy was the demand by critics for Physicists to show an exactly zero probability for such a catastrophic scenario, which physics cannot provide. However, by following the same argument of the critics, and using the same experimental and astrophysical constraints, physicists are also unable to demonstrate a zero probability, but just an upper limit for the likelihood, that tomorrow Earth will be struck with a "Doomsday" cosmic ray, resulting in the same destructive scenarios. According to this argument of upper limits, RHIC would still modify the chance for the Earth's survival by an extremely marginal amount.

The debate started in 1999 with an exchange of letters in Scientific American between W. L. Wagner, World Botanical Gardens, Inc., and F. Wilczek, Institute for Advanced Study, in response to a previous article by M. Mukerjee. The media attention unfolded with an article in U.K. Sunday Times of July 18, 1999 by J. Leake, closely followed by articles in the U.S. media. The controversy mostly ended with the report of a committee convened by the director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, J. H. Marburger, ruling out the catastrophic scenarios depicted. W. L. Wagner tried subsequently - as he had attempted with various accelerators before - to stop full energy collision at RHIC by filing Federal lawsuits in San Francisco and New York, but without success.

On March 17, 2005, the BBC published an article implying that researcher Horatiu Nastase believes black holes have been created at RHIC. However, the original papers of H. Nastase and the New Scientist article cited by the BBC state that the correspondence of the hot dense QCD matter created in RHIC to a black hole is only in the sense of a correspondence of QCD scattering in Minkowski space and scattering in the AdS5  X5 space in ; in other words, similar mathematically. RHIC collisions therefore might be useful to study Quantum gravity behavior within AdS/CFT, but the described physical phenomena are not the same.

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in fiction.

The novel Cosm (ISBN 0-3807-9052-1) by the American author Gregory Benford takes place at RHIC. The science fiction setting describes the main character Alicia Butterworth, a physicist at the BRAHMS experiment, and a new universe being created in RHIC by accident, while running with uranium ions.

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