Major Milestone Achieved for New Particle Accelerator Design
The Large Hadron Collider is a massive structure with the ability to accelerator particles to very high energy, in order to smash them together. One of its successors though could be small enough to fit in the basements of many buildings, including hospitals and universities. This possibility is thanks to researchers at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of California, Los Angeles.
First envisioned over thirty years ago, plasma wakefield acceleration is very different from more traditional accelerator designs. Instead of using massive magnets and radio waves to energize particles, plasma wakes are created to push and carry electrons to great speeds over very short distances. The design the SLAC researchers built uses two bunches of electrons, fired into a lithium gas. The first bunch of electrons strips away the lithium's electrons, creating the plasma. These excited electrons then try to fall back down in energy, and do so behind the second electron bunch, propelling it to very high energies.
Plasma wakefield acceleration has many advantages including great efficiency. In just 20 feet, the researchers were able to accelerate an electron beam to the same energies as the 2-mile-long SLAC linear accelerator. More work will have to be done before these practically tabletop accelerators can compete with their larger cousins, including controlling the shape of the second electron bunches, to make sure the resulting electron beam is of the highest quality.