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Report urges construction of collider sought by BNL, Virginia facilities

In Brookhaven National Laboratory's proposal, its existing Relativistic

In Brookhaven National Laboratory's proposal, its existing Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, part of which is seen here, would be reconfigured. Credit: Joseph Rubino Photography

A report by the National Academies of Sciences has advocated the construction of an estimated $750 million Electron-Ion Collider project coveted by Brookhaven National Laboratory and a competing Virginia facility.

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, which would fund the project, said the collider would have “far-reaching benefits to the nation’s science and technology driven economy” and would help maintain U.S. leadership in nuclear physics.

The study considered only the merit of the project overall, not the specifics of the bids by the Brookhaven laboratory in Upton and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia.

Doon Gibbs, BNL director, said the report would enhance future efforts by the Energy Department to secure funding for the project from Congress “in a credible way.”

Gibbs said the $750 million cost estimate for the project is “a few years old” and the laboratory, with about 2,600 employees, is “working on a refinement” that would be disclosed at a future date.

Ani Aprahamian, professor of experimental nuclear physics at the University of Notre Dame and co-chair of the panel that produced the 103-page report, said in an interview Wednesday that the Electron-Ion Collider would put the United States “ahead of the game” as China and Europe consider similar projects.

While investigating the mysteries of the universe, nuclear physics also provides real-world benefits.

For instance, Aprahamian said that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines scan patients by aligning the spin of proton beams, but scientists want to find out what causes that spin.

“It would have huge repercussions,” she said.

The report was released Tuesday after 14 months of meetings around the country to gather input from scientists specializing in particle physics.

The laboratories, both funded by the DOE, issued a joint statement welcoming the report and noting that in 2015, the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee recommended the collider as “the highest priority for new facility construction.”

Aprahamian said a follow-up study likely would examine the cost of building the Electron-Ion Collider, for which construction would take years.

“These are not simple construction projects,” she said.

Brookhaven Lab’s proposal calls for it to reconfigure its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which has a circumference of 2.5 miles. The proposal would replace one of its ion rings with an electron ring.

Jefferson Lab, meanwhile, has an electron accelerator. Its proposal would require adding an ion source and building a collider in the shape of a figure eight.

The project, which has no timetable, has prompted governors of both states to pledge millions of dollars in supplemental funding to help lure the project, which is seen as a source of jobs in addition to scientific advancement.

Colliders, also known as particle accelerators, are used to gain insights into subatomic realms. They use electric fields to speed up beams of particles into head-on collisions at close to the speed of light.

Scientists want to use the new collider to smash electrons into the nuclei of atoms in the hope of answering basic questions about subatomic particles.

For instance, Aprahamian said, scientists are puzzled why protons and neutrons, which comprise the nuclei of atoms, have a bigger mass, or weight, than the quarks and gluons of which they are built.

Those building blocks account for only about 10 percent of the mass of protons and neutrons, Aprahamian said. “The question is: Where is the rest of the mass coming from?”

Gibbs said solving the mystery would be a leap in our understanding of the universe because protons and neutrons “supply 99.9 percent of the mass of visible matter.”

Said Aprahamian: “It’s the last frontier of understanding matter in the universe.”

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