A New Atom-Smasher Will Come to the East End

The U.S. Department of Energy has named Brookhaven National Laboratory, off William Floyd Parkway in Upton, as the site of a new Electron-Ion Collider (EIC), a first-of-its-kind nuclear physics research facility. 

The Electron Ion Collider, which will be built within the tunnel of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) already at the laboratory, will “smash electrons, protons and heavier atomic nuclei in an effort to penetrate the mysteries of the “strong force” that binds the atomic nucleus together,” according to the Department of Energy.

The project will be designed and constructed over the next 10 years at an estimated cost between $1.6 and $2.6 billion.

The existing RHIC collides heavy ions, which are atoms which have had their outer cloud of electrons removed.

“The EIC promises to keep America in the forefront of nuclear physics research and particle accelerator technology, critical components of overall U.S. leadership in science,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette. “This facility will deepen our understanding of nature and is expected to be the source of insights ultimately leading to new technology and innovation.” 

Scientists believe the project will have benefits in the fields of health and medicine, national security, nuclear energy, radioisotope production, and industrial uses of particle beams. 

The preliminary design for the EIC at Brookhaven includes building a new electron storage ring and electron accelerator components that would operate within the existing infrastructure currently providing beams for the RHIC, which has been in operation since 2000. The new electron ring will allow electrons to interact with protons and large nuclei to probe and produce dynamic snapshots of the building blocks of these nuclear particles, according to BNL.

The lab says the EIC will act “somewhat like a CT scanner for atoms,” allowing “nuclear physicists to track the arrangement of the quarks and gluons that make up the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei. Scientists will use data collected from millions of collisions between electrons and protons and a wide range of larger atomic nuclei to study the “strong nuclear force” and to answer other longstanding questions in physics, including where the proton gets its “spin.”’

“The strong force, carried by the glue-like gluons, is the strongest and least-understood force in nature—more than 100 times more powerful than the electromagnetic force that governs today’s technologies,” they added. “No one knows for sure where a deeper understanding of the strong force could lead, but knowledge gained through explorations at an EIC could open new opportunities. Understanding the origins of proton spin–currently used in magnetic resonance imaging—may also yield applications derived from this fundamental physics knowledge.”

The technological advances already under development to make the EIC a reality, including new “accelerator, particle tracking, and data-management components—could have widespread impact on new approaches to cancer therapy, solving other “big data” challenges, and improving accelerator facilities for testing batteries, catalysts, and other energy-related materials,” according to the lab. “The knowledge stemming from research at the EIC will be published in the open scientific research literature and available to all partners, including commercial partners.”

Among the potential uses of the technology are making and testing computer chips, attacking cancer cells, designing solar cells and batteries, developing drugs and medical equipment and producing radioisotopes for diagnosis and treatment, according to the lab.

The collider-accelerator infrastructure will also be available to researchers who use particle beams to produce and conduct studies on medical isotopes and to study the effects of simulated space radiation with the aim of protecting future astronauts.

“The EIectron-Ion Collider will open up a new frontier in nuclear physics that will expand our knowledge of the fundamental constituents of the atoms that make up all visible matter in the universe today and the force that holds it all together,” said Brookhaven Lab Director Doon Gibbs.

“RHIC has been one of the pillars of the U.S. nuclear physics program for the past two decades,” said Robert Tribble, Brookhaven’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology. “It has consistently surpassed all expectations for performance, delivering unprecedented discoveries in the field and building a solid foundation for this new machine.” 

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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