Nuclear physicists’ next dream machine will be built at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, officials with the Department of Energy (DOE) announced today. The Electron-Ion Collider (EIC) will smash a high-energy beam of electrons into one of protons to probe the mysterious innards of the proton. The machine will cost between $1.6 billion and $2.6 billion and should be up and running by 2030, said Paul Dabbar, DOE’s undersecretary for science, in a telephone press briefing.
“It will be the first brand-new greenfield collider built in the country in decades,” Dabbar said. “The U.S. has been at the front end in nuclear physics since the end of the Second World War and this machine will enable the U.S. to stay at the front end for decades to come.”
The site decision brings to a close the competition to host the machine. Physicists at DOE’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, had also hoped to build the EIC.
Protons and neutrons make up the atomic nucleus, so the sort of work the EIC would do falls under the rubric of nuclear physics. Although they’re more common than dust, protons remain somewhat mysterious. Since the early 1970s, physicists have known that each proton consists of a trio of less massive particles called quarks. These bind to one another by exchanging other quantum particles called gluons.
However, the detailed structure of the proton is far more complex. Thanks to the uncertainties inherent in quantum mechanics, its interior roils with countless gluons and quark-antiquark pairs that flit in and out of existence too quickly to be directly observed. And many of the proton’s properties—including its mass and spin—emerge from that sea of “virtual” particles. To determine how that happens, the EIC will use its electrons to probe the protons, colliding the two types of particles at unprecedented energies and in unparalleled numbers.
Researchers at Jefferson lab already do similar work by firing their electron beam at targets rich with protons and neutrons. In 2017, researchers completed a $338 million upgrade to double the energy of the lab’s workhorse, the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility. With that electron accelerator in hand, Jefferson lab researchers had hoped to build the EIC by adding a new proton accelerator.
Brookhaven researchers have studied a very different type of nuclear physics. Their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) collides nuclei such as gold and copper to produce fleeting puffs of an ultrahot plasma of free-flying quarks and gluons like the one that filled the universe in the split second after the big bang. The RHIC is a 3.8-kilometer-long ring consisting of two concentric and counter-circulating accelerators. Brookhaven researchers plan to make the EIC by using one of the RHIC’s rings to accelerate the protons and to add an electron accelerator to the complex.
To decide which option to take, DOE officials convened an independent EIC site selection committee, Dabbar says. The committee weighed numerous factors, including the relative costs of the rival plans, he says. Proton accelerators are generally larger and more expensive than electron accelerators.
The Jefferson lab won’t be left out in the cold, Dabbar says. Researchers there have critical expertise in, among other things, making the superconducting accelerating cavities that will be needed for the new collider. So, scientists there will participate in designing, building, and operating the new collider. “We certainly look forward to [the Jefferson lab] taking the lead in these areas,” Dabbar says.
The site decision does not commit DOE to building the EIC. The project must still pass several milestones before researchers can being construction—including the approval of a detailed design, cost estimate, and construction schedule. That process can take a few years. However, the announcement does signal the end for the RHIC, which has run since 1999. To make way for the new collider, the RHIC will shut down for good in 2024, Dabbar said at the briefing.
The decision on a machine still 10 years away reflects the relative good times for DOE science funding, Dabbar says. “We’ve been able to start on every major project that’s been on the books for years.” DOE’s science budget is up 31% since 2016—in spite of the fact that under President Donald Trump, the White House has tried to slash it every year.