Guangdong becomes focus as China races the US to build bigger particle accelerators
Scientist says the competition between the two countries will ultimately be for the good of the human race.
Scientists in southern China are planning to create machines that will be used to unravel the mysteries of the building blocks of the universe.
They said two ring-shaped electron-ion colliders – one 2km (1.2 miles) long – will be built in Huizhou, a city in Guangdong province, beginning in 2025 and they will be designed to accelerate electrons to close to the speed of light.
The project – known as the Electron-Ion Collider of China, or EICC – will see electrons being fired at the nuclei of heavy elements such as iron or uranium at high speeds.
The scientists said the machines – among the biggest of their kind – would act as “cameras” when these collisions took place. This will allow them to study what is known as the “strong” nuclear force at work, as well as the particles, known as gluons, that carry it.
In nature, there are four known forces – gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak force. The strong force is equal to gravity multiplied by 100 undecillion, or one followed by 38 zeros.
Gluons carry strong force between quarks, the fundamental building blocks of matter. Scientists said the EICC would be able to break the bonds between quarks and set the gluons free, allowing study of their physical properties in detail.
Researchers with the Institute of Modern Physics, which is leading the EICC project, said the Huizhou campus would consist of two major elements.
Work has already started on a heavy ion, high-intensity accelerator. Planners estimate this part of the campus will cost about 1.6 billion yuan (US$230 million). The collider complex will be built after that.
The entire budget for the campus is unclear, but central and local governments are expected to split the cost.
Professor Zhang Zhaoxi, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a member of the EICC advisory panel, said one reason why the project was based in Huizhou was that the city and the provincial government were willing to foot much of the bill.
Under Beijing’s blueprint for the Greater Bay Area of Guangdong, Macau and Hong Kong, it will become a centre for scientific and technological research similar to Silicon Valley in California.
Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York is seeking the same answers as Huizhou. Photo: Handout
China and the US are currently racing to build bigger electron-ion colliders, something the US first proposed two decades ago.
In 2015, the US Nuclear Science Advisory Committee recommended the energy department treat the construction of an electron-ion collider as “the highest priority”. One estimate put the cost of construction at US$1.5 billion.
So far there are two competing designs under consideration in the US, from the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Laboratory in Virginia.
Neither country has yet approved their projects, but Zhang said the chances were high because of the contest between the two.
“They are watching us closely, and we are watching them closely. A move on one side can affect a move on the other,” he said.
Another project at Huizhou is looking for solutions to nuclear waste. Photo: Handout
Mao Yajun, a professor of physics at Peking University who was not involved in the project, said the international research community looked forward to the opening of Huizhou.
Although particle physicists believed they had an almost complete picture of the topic, some details were missing and until now physicists had filled them with informed assumptions, he said.
“The competition between China and the US does exist, but this is not a zero-sum game,” said Mao, who has worked at Brookhaven.
“We are striving for the common good of the entire human race.”
Also under construction at Huizhou is a project to study next-generation nuclear power with the aim of solving the problem of what to do with the waste they produce.
Planners said there would be more than 1,500 researchers from around the world studying at Huizhou when it was completed.
“My students and I want to go there,” said Mao. “It will be a paradise for physicists”.