Particle Accelerators Could Soon Fit In A Shoebox

Three “accelerators-on-a-chip” made of silicon are mounted on a clear base, in comparison to a U.S. penny. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

As the challenges of particle physics have become more and more complex, we've had to plan and build larger and larger machines to explore the tiny subatomic world. But now, an international group of physicists has developed a technology to miniaturize particle accelerators, which could revolutionize physics and the life sciences.

The team has received a $13.5 million (£9 million) grant to develop a prototype particle accelerator that will fit in a shoebox. The technology being developed is called “accelerator-on-a-chip”. Electrons are made to travel through a channel within a silica chip. Shining a laser onto the chip produces an electric field, and the field is modified by the ridges within the channel. This set-up dramatically accelerates the electrons moving through the channel.

The prototype is based on independent experiments from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California and Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) in Germany. Both teams discovered that these chips are capable of accelerating electrons to relativistic speed no matter the speed at which the electron was travelling before entering the channel. Also, the technology is capable of producing a larger acceleration gradient than current labs, which could reduce the size of particle accelerators – 100 meters (330 feet) of accelerator-on-a-chip would produce an acceleration equivalent to the 3.2-kilometer (two miles) SLAC linear accelerator, which is the longest in the world.   

Making particle accelerators smaller will not only make them cheaper but it would allow for a completely new and multidisciplinary approach. Accelerators are not just used to test fundamental physics, they have also been made to produce high-intensity X-rays that led to discoveries in many other fields, as well as being employed in medicine to fight cancer.



Check out a video on the research above. SLAC/YouTube

“Based on our proposed revolutionary design, this prototype could set the stage for a new generation of ‘tabletop’ accelerators, with unanticipated discoveries in biology and materials science and potential applications in security scanning, medical therapy and X-ray imaging.” Professor Robert Byer, co-principal investigator on the project, said in a statement.

There are still substantial challenges in turning this technology into a fully fledged particle accelerator. For example, lasers need to be directed on multiple chips, electron beams need to be guided and steered towards the channel, and the optimal chip design could still be out there.

“The chip is the most crucial ingredient, but a working accelerator is way more than just this component,” said Peter Hommelhoff, also a co-principal investigator on the project, in the statement. “We know what the main challenges will be and we don’t know how to solve them yet. But as scientists we thrive on this type of challenge. It requires a very diverse set of expertise, and we have brought a great crowd of people together to tackle it.” 


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