Scientists See Evidence of First-Order Phase Change in Nuclear Matter

The Science

New evidence suggests that protons and neutrons go through a “first-order” phase transition—a kind of stop-and-go change in temperature—when they “melt.” This is similar to how ice melts: energy first increases the temperature, then, during the transition, the temperature stays steady while the energy transforms a solid to a liquid. Only when all the molecules are liquid can the temperature increase again. With protons and neutrons, the melted state is a soup of quarks and gluons. Scientists studying this quark-gluon plasma (QGP) at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) see signs of this stop-and-go transition. The latest data, from low-energy collisions, adds new support for this pattern.

The Impact

For more than 35 years, theorists have predicted signatures that scientists can look for as evidence of a first-order phase change in QGP. But finding those signatures requires studying QGP over a wide range of energies and mapping out key features in tiny specks that disappear a mere billionth of a trillionth of a second after they form. Thanks to the flexibility of RHIC and the sophistication of the STAR (Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC) detector, scientists finally have the needed measurements in hand.


RHIC, a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility, was built in part to study how nuclear matter transitions to a soup of free quarks and gluons. RHIC accelerates and collides the nuclei of gold atoms at different energies to study how they melt to form this QGP. Observing a drop in pressure and a longer lifetime of the QGP during the transition would be analogous to the temperature of water holding steady while freezing or melting—a sign of a first-order phase transition. STAR physicists searched for these signs by measuring the sideways deflection of particles (a pressure drop would decrease this “flow”) and the size of the system created (longer-lived systems would appear larger in one dimension). Measuring such tiny size changes required using particles with a wavelength smaller than a femtometer—more than a billion times smaller than the width of a human hair. Generating collisions at the lowest energy for this study required running RHIC with one particle beam colliding with a stationary gold foil inside the STAR detector. Data from these lowest-energy, “fixed-target” collisions extend the energy range and align with the predicted patterns long theorized to occur in a first-order phase transition. Scientists are still collecting and processing data from a more detailed scan to understand additional characteristics of the phase transition at different collision energies.



This work was supported in part by the DOE Office of Science, Office of Nuclear Physics, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Chinese Academy of Science, the Ministry of Science and Technology of China and the Chinese Ministry of Education, the Higher Education Sprout Project by Ministry of Education at NCKU, the National Research Foundation of Korea, Czech Science Foundation and Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic, Hungarian National Research, Development and Innovation Office, New National Excellency Programme of the Hungarian Ministry of Human Capacities, Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India, the National Science Centre of Poland, the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports of the Republic of Croatia, RosAtom of Russia and German Bundesministerium fur Bildung, Wissenschaft, Forschung and Technologie, Helmholtz Association, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, and Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.