A particle accelerator in a thimble

Three “accelerators on a chip” made of silicon. A shoebox-sized particle accelerator would use a series of these to boost the energy of electrons. Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Particles accelerators are huge, think about the LHC at Cern in Geneva (27km) or at the new one proposed by China (details have not been disclosed, the announcement at the end of October 2015 indicated a circumference between 30 and 62 miles).

There are reasons for them to be big. Particles need to be accelerated to near light speed to gain energy and let scientists explore high energy collisions.

And yet, someone is proposing a completely different approach to particles acceleration, an approach that can result in a particle accelerator fitting inside a shoe box (that's bigger than a thimble, but the point was to get your attention).

Scientists at the Stanford University have received a 13.5 M$ grant to build a particle accelerator on a chip. The grant is for Stanford to create a multi-national team to investigate a new technology for accelerating electrons through a series of glass chips resulting in a very compact (and proportionally cheap) particle accelerator.

Such a result would have dramatic impact in several areas, from medicine to security checks (like airport scanners)

The technology is based on result published in 2013 by SLAC and university of Erlangen teams, working independently of one another. They demonstrated the possibility to accelerate electrons using lasers. Actually they managed to push electrons to close the speed of light, as fast as they can possibly go, with any further push only resulting in increase of their energy (mass) not in an increase in speed.

The challenges ahead are huge, the team at Stanford will need to find ways to compress at least 1,000 times the beam of electrons to have them fitting within a chip and find ways to coordinate the various lasers to push the electrons.

Indeed, it will be a revolution of paradigm. So far increasing the capability of an accelerator meant to design a bigger one. Here they are trying to follow the approach of electronic chip: make it smaller and you increase its performances.

Interesting indeed.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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