SLAC’s accelerator on a chip could match the power of conventional accelerators in a tabletop package. (Image credit SLAC)
When it comes to particle accelerators, the first image that comes to mind is Cern’s Large Hedron Collider, which just happens to be the largest, most powerful accelerator on the planet. Alternatively, perhaps you might envision the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) or the now-defunct Tevatron (both in the same area in Illinois). Regardless of which you might envision, all of them have one thing in common- they feature large Injector Rings that span miles in circumference to push electrons at incredible speeds. But what if scientists could do the same thing with particles only at a smaller size- say around just a hundred feet or so? That’s exactly what scientists at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have been developing for a few years now.
In what they call an “advance that could dramatically shrink particle accelerators for new breakthroughs in science and medicine,” SLAC scientists used a conventional laser to push electrons at rate 10-times higher than traditional accelerators utilizing a glass chip no bigger than a grain of rice. They claim that at its full potential, their new technology (dubbed an accelerator on a chip) could match the power of their 2-mile long LINAC accelerator at just 100 feet and at the same time, deliver a million more electron pulses per-second.
SLAC’s nanofabricated silica-based chips are the key to accelerating electrons at higher rates. (Image credit SLAC)
To function at smaller distances, scientists push the electrons at near light speeds using a conventional accelerator (this is the caveat). Once accelerated, the particles are then focused into a small half-micron channel within a half-millimeter long silica-based chip, patterned with equally spaced nanoscale ridges. IR laser light pulsed on those ridges generates an electrical field that interacts with those electrons, giving them increased energy.
Using a conventional accelerator to get the particles up to speed is SLAC’s only drawback with their new accelerator platform. However scientists are currently looking at ways to overcome this obstacle and introduce true tabletop accelerators.
As for the tiny accelerator’s applications, SLAC scientists envision endeavors that go beyond physics research stating their laser accelerators could be used for medical purposes, including small, portable X-ray devices for people injured in combat or medical imaging in hospitals. They could also be implemented for security with the ability to X-ray everything from humans to luggage at a much faster rate than conventional scanners. New biological and materials science research could also benefit from using the technology so it will be interesting to see what developments the accelerator on a chip will uncover in the near future.
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