Supersize Me: Atom Smasher Reaches Highest Energies Yet
One of the first lead ion collisions captured as the LHC ramped up for higher energy levels on the ALICE experiment, which aims to re-create conditions a billionth of a second after the Big Bang.
Credit: CERN

Slam!

The world's largest atom smasher has supersized its collisions, crashing heavy lead atoms into one another at the highest energy levels yet.

"The collision energy between two nuclei reaches 1,000 tera-electron volts. This energy is that of a bumblebee hitting us on the cheek on a summer day. But the energy is concentrated in a volume that is approximately 10 to 27 (a billion-billion-billion) times smaller," Jens Jørgen Gaardhøje, the head of the Danish research group within the A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE) at CERN, said in a statement. "The energy concentration (density) is therefore tremendous and has never been realized before under terrestrial conditions." [In Photos: The World's Largest Atom Smasher]

The massive particle collisions could reveal insights into the flicker of time just after the Big Bang, when the entire universe was filled with a blazing hot primordial soup of the fundamental building blocks of matter called quarks, antiquarks and gluons.

Ramping up

The Large Hadron Collider, the 17-mile-long (27 kilometers) ring on the border between France and Switzerland, has been operating at higher energy levels since the summer. But those collisions used protons, which have an atomic mass of 1. The new experiments use much heftier lead nuclei, which have an atomic mass of about 208.

The new collisions convert all that energy into tiny flecks of matter made up of just quarks, antiquarks and gluons. The teensy speck of matter fleetingly reaches a temperature of 4,000 billion degrees.

Normally, quarks are bound together into subatomic particles via gluons, which carry the strong nuclear force. But the intense collisions blow apart the particles and form a primordial soup that mimics the conditions in the billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

The team first turned on the lead beams for collisions on Nov. 25.

"The first collisions already tell us that more than 30,000 particles can be created in every central collision between two lead ions. This corresponds to an unprecedented energy density," of more than 40 times the energy density of a proton, Gaardhøje said.

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