Super Small Super Powerful Particle Accelerator

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A super small and super powerful tabletop particle accelerator has been developed by physicists at the University of Texas. It can generate particle energy and speeds previously unknown, all within the size of a single inch.

Particle accelerators not long ago were as much as the length of two football fields.The Texas physicists have reduced the size to a sing square inch; this is a reduction in size of about 10,000.

The results represent a huge step towards standardizing multi-gigaelectronvolt laser plasma accelerators in labs worldwide.

The device, classified as a “tabletop particle accelerator,”  is capable of accelerating half a billion electrons to 2 gigaelectronvolts over a distance of about one inch. That’s the sort of energy and speed that could previously be generated only in a handful of massive, multi-million dollar facilities.

The person who headed the research, Mike Downer, professor of physics at the University of Texas’ College of Natural Sciences, is confident that it will lead to further innovation and discovery.

Downer’s  results were published this week in the science journal Nature Communications.  His findings represent a massive advance in the accessibility and potential of molecular research.

According to Downer, “The X-rays we’ll be able to produce are of femtosecond duration, which is the time scale on which molecules vibrate and the fastest chemical reactions take place. They will have the energy and brightness to enable us to see, for example, the atomic structure of single protein molecules in a living sample.”

The University of Texas physicists utilized  a strong laser (produced by the Texas Petawatt Laser) and they simply directed it into a brief puff of gas.

Using the University of Texas Petawatt Laser, the team employed laser-plasma acceleration, which involves firing a brief but intensely powerful laser pulse into a puff of gas.

The method was conceived of in the 1970s, but  a lack of sufficiently powerful lasers to perform it has kept scientists limited at 1 GeV accelerators.

Downer compared the much more complex  laser-plasma acceleration process to what would happen if you threw a motorboat into a lake with its engines running:

“The boat (the laser) makes a splash, then creates a wave as it moves through the lake at high speed. During that initial splash, some droplets (charged particles) break off, get caught up in the wave and accelerate by surfing on it. At the other end of the lake they get thrown off into the environment at incredibly high speeds. That’s our 2 GeV electron beam.”

Downer continued, saying:  “If we can just keep the funding in place for the next few years, all of this is going to happen. Companies are now selling petawatt lasers commercially, and as we get better at doing this, companies will come into being to make 10 GeV accelerator modules. Then the end users, the chemists and biologists, will come in, and that will lead to more innovations and discoveries.”

With the success of the 2-GeV accelerator, Downer says he expects 10-GeV accelerators of a few inches to be developed in the next few years, and 20-GeV accelerators of the same size within a decade.

The development of a super small and super powerful particle accelerator will enable  physicists to more easily observe the atomic structure of matter and in closer detail.

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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