The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
Episode #1 of the course “Most ambitious science projects”
Imagine finding the origins of the universe with a real time machine. The relativistic heavy ion collider (RHIC) is 2.5 miles (~4.0 km) in circumference and is maintained by 700 people. The RHIC cost over 600 million dollars to build and needs over 150 million dollars to keep it up yearly.
If the gold ions that are racing within the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider on Long Island, New York crash into each other, these meetings could yield temperatures of up to 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit (~4 trillion degrees Celsius). This temperature is so hot that it dissolves particles. As particles disassemble, their building blocks—quarks and gluons—combine to become a new state of matter, a quark-gluon plasma. When the collision is over and the material cools, protons and neutrons are recreated, making 4,000 subatomic particles as an effect. As scientists use the RHIC, they attempt to replicate conditions from the big bang during its first millionth second.
Uses for Science
Physicists at the RHIC move gold atoms through accelerators, removing their electrons and turning them into positively-charged ions in an effort to understand more about how universal matter has changed. Launched through circular tubes, those ions speed up to 99.9% light speed before colliding. While looking at the remains of these impacts, scientists find that particles post-Big Bang act similarly to liquids and not as a predicted gas.
Uses for Practical Life
Right now, RHIC scientists are constructing machines that speed up protons and are better at precisely guiding them to irradiate and deaden human cancer tumors. Engineers have found that using the heavy ion beam to make little holes in plastic sheets makes filtering substances and sorting into molecules easier. In a few years, we may see fewer cumbersome ways to devise energy storage fashioned after the RHIC’s superconducting magnet technology.
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