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Some high-energy experiments (RHIC, LHC) use ion-ion collisions instead of proton-proton collisions. Although the total center-of-mass energy is indeed higher than p-p collisions, it might happen that the total energy per nucleon is actually lower. What are the advantages of using ion-ion collisions (e.g. gold-gold or lead-lead) instead of proton-proton collisions, considering the same accelerator?

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As a clarification the energy per nucleon is always lower: for example, currently in the LHC the proton top energy is 3.5 TeV. Now the Pb energy is 3.5 TeV times Z so the energy per nucleon is 3.5*Z/A and A is greater than Z for every nucleus (except the proton where it is equal to one).

But the goal of ion-ion collision is not to increase the total energy or the energy per nucleon: it is to obtain a different type of collision.

It should be noted than in a proton-proton collision, the energy involved in the real collision process is variable: each quark and gluon carry a fraction of the energy of the proton, and hard collision involve a collision between a quark/gluon of one proton against a quark/gluon of the other.

In the case of ion-ion collision you have the same process: the energy is shared by the protons/neutrons and they can have different energies.

The goal of such collision is also to obtain a volume (bigger than in a p-p collision) with a very high energy density. In such a volume, a "state of matter" called quark-gluon-plasma is believed to be possibly created. The study of this QGP is one of the main goal of the ALICE experiment at the LHC.

A few references:

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for mentioning the extended volume of colliding matter $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ "the energy per nucleon is always lower" Well, we can imagine a collision dominated by two $x > 1$ partons. Such events would, of course, be vanishingly rare. $\endgroup$ Commented May 19, 2011 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee: I think you interpreted that sentence to narrowly: He is trying to make a point about energy vs. energy per nucleon. Anyway, how would you produce $x>1$ for pp if you cannot get extra energy from the medium? $\endgroup$ Commented May 19, 2011 at 16:58
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The main goal of accelerating heavy ions in the LHC is to produce the quark gluon plasma as a result of large energy concentration in a small volume in case many nucleons of the two nuclei interact producing a collective effect of hadronig heating to a temperaturę of milliards degrees which melts all hadrons. In heavuy ion collisions even if energy per nucleon is smaller the total energy released in case of many nucleons interactions makes these collisions so different from the standard proton proton collisions.

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