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Physicists produce highest man-made temperature: 7 trillion degrees

June 27, 2012|By Thomas H. Maugh II
  • An aerial view of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
An aerial view of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National… (Brookhaven National Laboratory )

Physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory have smashed gold ions together to produce a quark-gluon plasma like that which existed in the first instant after the Big Bang that created the universe, and in doing so have produced what Guinness World Records says is the highest man-made temperature ever, 7.2 trillion degrees. That is about 250,000 times hotter than the temperature at the core of the sun.

Quarks are the elementary particles from which all other particles, including protons, neutrons and electrons, are made. They normally bind together so tightly that they are virtually never observed in isolation. The binding force that holds them together is provided by massless particles called gluons.

In the first ten-millionths of a second after the Big Bang, the universe was composed of what is known as a quark-gluon plasma, but that immediately condensed into the matter we now know.

Scientists have been trying to re-create the conditions of the Big Bang to get a better understanding of how the universe was created. At Brookhaven, they are doing it with a large accelerator called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, a 2.4-mile-long ring in which ions are accelerated to speeds near that of light.

In an experiment called PHENIX, researchers accelerated gold ions in both directions around the ring, ultimately smashing them together in one of six experimental chambers around the accelerator. The team then observed the very brief formation of the quark-gluon plasma, which turned out to be a nearly frictionless fluid with a temperature of 4 trillion degrees Celsius (7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit), a feat that has now been recognized by the folks at Guinness.

"There are many cool things about this ultra-hot matter," said Brookhaven physicist Steven Vigdor in a Brookhaven blog. "We expected to reach these temperatures -- that is, after all, why RHIC was built -- but we did not at all anticipate the nearly perfect liquid behavior."

Surprisingly, other researchers have observed a similar frictionless liquid behavior in trapped atoms held near absolute zero. "This is just one among many unexpected connections we've found between RHIC physics and other scientific forefronts. The unity of physics is a beautiful thing," Vigdor wrote.

The record certainly won't last long, however. Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe have produced a plasma with an energy density three times higher than that produced at RHIC, which should translate into a 30% higher temperature. They have not, however, announced what the measured temperature actually is.

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