A 20-Ton Superconducting Magnet Lets Physicists Peer Into the Origins of the Universe

A 20-ton superconducting solenoid magnet first arrived at Brookhaven Lab in 2015. It was installed in the sPHENIX particle detector on October 7, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory)

By Lida Tunesi

With the installation of a 20-ton superconducting magnet, a group of Graduate Center researchers recently celebrated a big step toward finishing a new particle detector at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The detector will let scientists examine the kind of “particle soup” that existed for mere millionths of a second after the Big Bang, recreated in Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC. Dubbed sPHENIX, the experiment will succeed the PHENIX project at RHIC with expanded capabilities.

Two Graduate Center Physics Ph.D. students, Daniel Richford and Zhiyan Wang, are collaborating on the project under the supervision of Professor Stefan Bathe (GC/Baruch, Physics).

Richford received a 2021 Merit Award from Brookhaven for his leadership ensuring the safe and timely assembly and testing of the sPHENIX hadronic calorimeter during the pandemic. The hadronic calorimeter will track, absorb, and measure the energy of hadrons, a type of subatomic particle, while an electromagnetic calorimeter will do the same with photons and electrons. When construction is complete, these two pieces of equipment will encircle the magnet.

The magnet is responsible for bending the trajectories of the particles that come out of near-light speed collisions in RHIC, helping physicists differentiate types of particles. When sPHENIX starts collecting data, researchers hope to capture up to 15,000 collisions per second.

The “particle soup,” also known as the quark-gluon plasma, has compelling properties as a near-perfect liquid. Scientists have an understanding of the plasma, and of its constituent quark and gluon particles. The plan for sPHENIX is to uncover the connection between the two, and figure out how quark and gluon interactions give rise to the plasma’s unique characteristics. 

“We are working on the next layer of calorimeter detectors, to be installed inside the magnet early next year,” Bathe told Baruch College. “Once the installation of this equipment is complete, we’ll be able to more carefully examine the particle soup that remains floating out there in the universe from the Big Bang.”

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Submitted on: NOV 8, 2021

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