Meet The World’s Smallest Particle Accelerator

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Meet The World’s Smallest Particle AcceleratorFAU/Laser Physics, Stefanie Kraus, Julian Litzel

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  • Researchers recently booted up the world’s smallest particle accelerator.

  • Accelerators like these, called nanophotonic accelerators, have been an idea for a few years, but hadn’t produced significant energy gains until now.

  • The scientists behind the project hope the tech will eventually be powerful enough to have exciting applications in medicine.

How big do you think particle accelerators need to be to do their science-y jobs? If your only familiarity with these devices comes from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland—which, in all fairness, is easily the most famous particle accelerator in the world—then you probably think they have to be pretty dang big.

Well, interestingly, that’s not the case. In fact, the world’s smallest particle accelerator is just barely longer than a dime—and researchers just booted it up.

A study recently published in the journal Nature shows off what this “nanophotonic accelerator” can really do. The idea of these teeny-tiny accelerators has been around for a few years now, but until now, no one had been able to get any significant energy increase out of one.

So, when the team from Friedrich–Alexander University of Erlangen–Nuremberg (FAU) in Germany turned checked their readings after they turned on their petite particle accelerator, they knew they had achieved an exciting first. “We gained energy of 12 kiloelectron volts,” Leon Brückner, one of the authors on the study, said in a press release. “That is a 43 percent gain in energy.”

The key to this device is the design of the vacuum tube in which the particles are accelerated. It’s a fraction of the width of a human hair and made up of a huge number of what the team calls “pillars.” To get the whole thing to work, tiny laser bursts are fired at these equally tiny pillars, which generates an energy field that then accelerates the desired particles.

And for such a small accelerator, giving those particles a 43 percent energy boost is not nothing. It’s not going to crack open the secrets of the universe the way that the LCH will, but that’s not the goal here. While the most famous particle accelerator is dealing with complex and cutting-edge physics, most particle accelerators are doing other things. A lot of them, interestingly, are being use in the medical field for things like radiation treatment for cancer patients. The ultimate goal for this little NEA is to be able to radiate cancerous cells directly from inside the body, providing incredibly localized treatment.

But before it does that, it’s going to have to up its acceleration capabilities. The press release claims that the accelerator will have to increase gain even further by a factor of about 100 to have real applications in the medical field. But the team has some plans they’re excited to try. “In order to achieve higher electron currents at higher energies at the output of the structure,” Tomáš Chlouba, one of the researchers on the project, said in the release, “we will have to expand the structures or place several channels next to each other.”

And lucky for them, they won’t be alone in that aim. The team has actually been working both with and parallel to a team from Stanford University on this project. The Stanford team actually achieved significant gain in their nanophotonic accelerator at almost exactly the same time at the FAU team, though their results are still under review.

It sure seems like the world is getting nanophotonic accelerators soon—one way or another.

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