Fragile light nuclei flow through freeze-out

10 November 2020

A report from the ALICE experiment

Figure 1

Ultra-relativistic heavy-ion collisions create a system of deconfined quarks and gluons known as the quark–gluon plasma (QGP). Among other particles, a large number of light nuclei such as the deuteron, triton, helium-3, helium-4 and their corresponding antinuclei are produced, and can be measured with very good precision by the ALICE experiment at the LHC thanks to its excellent tracking and particle-identification capabilities via specific energy loss and time-of-flight measurements. Considering that the binding energies of light (anti)nuclei do not exceed a few MeV, it is not clear how such fragile objects can survive the hadron gas phase created after the phase transition from the QGP to hadrons, where particles rescatter with a typical momentum transfer in excess of 100 MeV. The production mechanism of light (anti)nuclei in these collisions is still not understood and is under intense debate in the scientific community. Constraining models of light antinuclei production is also important for predicting the backgrounds to indirect dark-matter searches using cosmic rays, as performed by experiments in space and in hot-air balloons, for which light antinuclei are promising signals.

The measured elliptic flow of light nuclei is bracketed by the simple coalescence approach and the blast-wave model

Azimuthal anisotropies of light (anti)nuclei production with respect to the symmetry plane of the collision are key observables to study interactions in the hadron-gas phase, and can shed light on the production mechanism of these fragile objects. The ALICE collaboration has recently reported the measurements of two harmonic coefficients (vn) in a Fourier decomposition of the azimuthal distribution of deuterons in Pb–Pb collisions at √sNN = 5.02 TeV: their elliptic flow, v2, and the first measurement of their triangular flow, v3. A clear mass ordering is observed in the elliptic flow of non-central Pb–Pb collisions at low pT when the deuteron results are compared with other particle species, as expected for an expanding hydrodynamic system (figure 1, left).

Blast wave is best

The results are often compared to three phenomenological models, namely the statistical hadronisation model, the coalescence model, and the blast-wave model. In the statistical hadronisation model, light (anti)nuclei are assumed to be emitted by a source of thermal and hydrochemical equilibrium, like other hadron species, and their abundances fixed at the chemical freeze-out – the time at which inelastic interactions cease. However, this model only describes their yields, and not their flow. On the other hand, the coalescence model predicts that light nuclei are formed by the coalescence of protons and neutrons that are close in phase space at the kinetic freeze-out – the time at which elastic interactions cease. The blast-wave model, which is based on a simplified version of relativistic hydrodynamics, describes their transverse momentum spectra with just a few parameters, such as the kinetic freeze-out temperatures and transverse velocity.

In the new ALICE results, the measured elliptic flow of light nuclei is bracketed by the simple coalescence approach and the blast-wave model, which describe the data in different multiplicity regimes (figure 1, middle). The deuteron triangular flow is consistent with the coalescence model predictions, but large uncertainties do not allow a conclusive statement (figure 1, right). This specific aspect will be addressed with the larger data sample that ALICE will record in Run 3, which will also allow measurement of the flow of heavier nuclei. These results will contribute to shed light on their production mechanism and to study the properties of the hadron gas phase.

Further reading

ALICE Collaboration 2020 arXiv:2005.14639

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