Creation of quark–gluon plasma droplets with three distinct geometries

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Experimental studies of the collisions of heavy nuclei at relativistic energies have established the properties of the quark–gluon plasma (QGP), a state of hot, dense nuclear matter in which quarks and gluons are not bound into hadrons1,2,3,4. In this state, matter behaves as a nearly inviscid fluid5 that efficiently translates initial spatial anisotropies into correlated momentum anisotropies among the particles produced, creating a common velocity field pattern known as collective flow. In recent years, comparable momentum anisotropies have been measured in small-system proton–proton (p+p) and proton–nucleus (p+A) collisions, despite expectations that the volume and lifetime of the medium produced would be too small to form a QGP. Here we report on the observation of elliptic and triangular flow patterns of charged particles produced in proton–gold (p+Au), deuteron–gold (d+Au) and helium–gold (3He+Au) collisions at a nucleon–nucleon centre-of-mass energy \(\sqrt {s_{{\mathrm{NN}}}}\) = 200 GeV. The unique combination of three distinct initial geometries and two flow patterns provides unprecedented model discrimination. Hydrodynamical models, which include the formation of a short-lived QGP droplet, provide the best simultaneous description of these measurements.

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Fig. 1: Average system eccentricities from a Monte Carlo (MC) Glauber model and hydrodynamic evolution of small systems.
Fig. 2: Measured vn(pT) in three collision systems.
Fig. 3: Measured vn(pT) in three collision systems compared with models.
Fig. 4: Measured v2(pT) in p+Au and d+Au collisions at the same event multiplicity.

Data availability

All raw data for this study were collected using the PHENIX detector at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Data tables for the results reported in this paper and other findings of this study are publicly available on the PHENIX website ( or from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank the staff of the Collider-Accelerator and Physics Departments at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the staff of the other PHENIX participating institutions for their vital contributions. We acknowledge support from the Office of Nuclear Physics in the Office of Science of the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, Abilene Christian University Research Council, Research Foundation of SUNY, and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Vanderbilt University (USA), Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Japan), Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Cientfico e Tecnológico and Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (Brazil), Natural Science Foundation of China (People’s Republic of China), Croatian Science Foundation and Ministry of Science and Education (Croatia), Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (Czech Republic), Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique, and Institut National de Physique Nucléaire et de Physique des Particules (France), Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, and Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung (Germany), NKFIH, EFOP, the New National Excellence Program (ÚNKP) and the J. Bolyai Research Scholarships (Hungary), Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Science and Technology (India), Israel Science Foundation (Israel), Basic Science Research Program through NRF of the Ministry of Education (Korea), Physics Department, Lahore University of Management Sciences (Pakistan), Ministry of Education and Science, Russian Academy of Sciences, Federal Agency of Atomic Energy (Russia), VR and Wallenberg Foundation (Sweden), the US Civilian Research and Development Foundation for the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union, the Hungarian American Enterprise Scholarship Fund, and the US–Israel Binational Science Foundation.

Author information

All PHENIX collaboration members contributed to the publication of these results in a variety of roles including detector construction, data collection, data processing, and analysis. A subset of collaboration members prepared this manuscript, and all authors had the opportunity to review the final version.

Correspondence to J. L. Nagle.

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