From Brookhaven Lab: “Accelerating Particles Accelerates Science — With Big Benefits for Society”

Brookhaven Lab


March 13, 2013
Karen McNulty Walsh

“Tackling the most challenging problems in accelerator science attracts the world’s best and brightest to Brookhaven Lab. It’s only natural that ideas and techniques born here take root in new research facilities around the world — and spark a host of spin-off applications for industry, medicine, national security, and more.

Twin accelerators: RHIC is really two accelerators in one — made of crisscrossing rings of superconducting magnets, enclosed in a tunnel 2.4 miles in circumference. In the two rings, beams of heavy ions are accelerated to nearly the speed of light in opposite directions, held in their orbits by powerful magnetic fields.

Some would call the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) — an ‘atom smasher‘ at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory — the most modern accelerator facility in the world. Many ideas about how to accelerate, focus and collide beams of particles that were tried unsuccessfully elsewhere have succeeded at RHIC. And as scientists’ understanding of the early-universe matter created in RHIC’s light-speed collisions has evolved, so too has the collider itself —to probe ever deeper into the mysteries of how this primordial matter gave rise to the visible structure of the universe today.

The machine, which steers beams of billions of ions into collisions thousands of times per second, is operating at 15 times the level of performance for which it was designed.

‘The versatility, performance, and improvements to this machine have been nothing short of astounding,’ said Thomas Roser, who heads the Collider-Accelerator Department at Brookhaven Lab.

The RHIC accelerator complex: The particle smashups recreating early universe conditions at RHIC depend on a chain of accelerators to bring ions up to speed. Several links in the chain have interesting histories and applications beyond physics.

Unlike any other collider in the world, RHIC can collide a variety of ions — from single protons to uranium nuclei, one of the heaviest naturally occurring atoms — at a very wide range of energies. This versatility allows physicists to explore the mysterious world of quark interactions and the strange and unexpected features of the strong force — including details of the transition from ordinary matter to what the universe looked like some 13.7 billion years ago.

The success of RHIC is particularly impressive given that, at the beginning, scientists weren’t sure it would work. ‘Never before was a collider made to collide heavy ions,’ said Thomas Hemmick, a physicist at Stony Brook University and a collaborator on RHIC research. ‘There were many new challenges that were absolutely enormous.’

Throughout the design and construction of RHIC in the 1980s and 1990s, nuclear and accelerator physicists — and students from all over the world — wanted to work on the project. Stony Brook, the university closest to Brookhaven, was a natural partner.

‘Many successful students were coming to Stony Brook, some didn’t even know accelerator physics was an option,’ Hemmick said, ‘but collaborations started to happen naturally because of the proximity of the Lab and the expertise of its physicists.’

Now Hemmick is helping to foster a climate that nurtures those attracted to the scientific and technological challenges presented by RHIC and accelerator science in general. Together with Brookhaven physicist Vladimir Litvinenko, Hemmick co-directs the Center for Accelerator Science and Education (CASE), a unique joint university-laboratory graduate and post-graduate program focused on developing the next crop of accelerator scientists and engineers.

The Center for Accelerator Science and Education (CASE) helps to build America’s future high-tech workforce. Here high-school students and teachers participating in a CASE workshop visit the RHIC accelerator tunnel.

Medical advances

For example, Brookhaven is one of just two facilities in the U.S. that produces high-demand, short-supply radioactive isotopes used in heart-disease diagnosis, and Brookhaven scientists are actively exploring new applications in cancer diagnosis and treatment. The Brookhaven Linac Isotope Producer (BLIP) produces these isotopes by bombarding specific materials with protons that are accelerated through the 200-million-electron-volt (MeV) linear accelerator, or linac,’ portion of the RHIC accelerator complex, piggybacking on ongoing RHIC operations funding.

Whether you know it or not, accelerators play a role in many aspects of our lives. The U.S. Department of Energy—whose Office of Science funds the research at RHIC—estimates that there are 30,000 accelerators operating in world. Many of these are small and conduct behind-the-scenes work: producing beams of radiation used to sterilize medical equipment and keep pathogens at bay in our food supply, imprinting computer chips with ions to improve their performance, producing radioisotopes for cancer diagnosis and treatment, and scanning shipping containers for illicit materials.

The RHIC research program also inspired the U.S. space agency to build and operate its NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven, using beams that come from RHIC’s Booster to simulate the kind of particle radiation that permeates deep space. Studies of how these particles affect cells, DNA samples, electronics, and shielding materials are helping scientists evaluate risks and test strategies to protect future astronauts and satellites. Studying the biological effects of radiation in this manner is also offering new insight into our understanding of cancer and the body’s defense mechanisms.

Scientists at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory bombard cells, DNA, and electronic equipment with beams that simulate deep space particle radiation to better understand risks and design protective strategies.

Magnets for energy storage

Materials used in accelerator design are also finding new applications. Most of RHIC’s magnets, for example, are made of superconductors — remarkable materials that conduct electricity with no energy loss when kept extremely cool. The design of these magnets has made Brookhaven a world-leader in magnet design and the study of superconducting systems, including more recently discovered superconductors that operate at temperatures above a deep chill, which offer enormous promise for future applications.

Even the future of accelerator science at RHIC — a proposed Electron Ion Collider known as eRHIC — offers promise of applications beyond its role as a tool for investigating the structure of matter. The idea is to add an electron ring to the existing RHIC tunnel so high-speed electrons can probe the inner structure of heavy ions.

I have included way too much of this article, but in the hope that you will visit the article yourself and see the very large amount of data I left out. Please visit the full article here. The U.S., in fact the whole scientific world needs RHIC to continue being supported by the D.O.E. Office of Science.

One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. The Laboratory’s almost 3,000 scientists, engineers, and support staff are joined each year by more than 5,000 visiting researchers from around the world.Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE’s Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization.

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