Bringing Particle Accelerators to the Tabletop
Many scientists know that sometimes size does matter, as particle accelerators can require huge amounts of space to get particles up to the speed needed for experiments. Constructing such massive systems is complicated, slow, and expensive, so many have been searching for a way to change that. One potential technology to bring particle acceleration to tabletops has just gotten a major push, thanks to researchers at Berkeley Lab.
Traditional accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider, use high-powered radio waves to energize and accelerate electrons, which can take a lot of room. An alternative design called a laser-plasma accelerator would achieve the same goal by firing a laser pulse into a plasma. When the laser light enters the plasma it will cause it to move, creating waves that electrons will ride on, and accelerate with. For a laser-plasma accelerator to match the power of the LHC and other accelerators though, very powerful and fast lasers would have to be used, but none exist and making one would be immensely difficult. Or at least that is what scientists thought.
One of the ways to increase the power of a laser is to just use multiple lasers and combine their beams. To get the best effect, the beams would have to be practically identical, which is where the difficulty comes in. The Berkeley researchers though, decided to look at what happens when the laser beams do not match. To their surprise, the plasma did not care. Provided the light entered the plasma, it behaved just as desired. It will still be many years before a laser-plasma accelerator to rival the LHC can be built, but instead of being kilometers long, it could fit inside a lab, comfortably on top of a table.
Source: Berkeley Lab