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Portable Particle Accelerators a Possibility

Category: Science & Technology
Posted: 06:53AM

Some of the largest and most advanced structures ever built by man have been particle accelerators, because the traditional means of accelerating particles to relativistic speeds require that much room. Recently though, new accelerator designs have been developed that could enable accelerators the size of tables to be built. Now researchers at the University of Maryland have further refined this design to bring the energy requirements down to a fraction of what a lightbulb needs.

Plasma wakefield acceleration works by firing a laser into a plasma. As the laser passes through the ionized gas, it produces a wake behind it that drags electrons along with the pulse, at speeds approaching the speed of light. Normally this requires very powerful laser pulses, but the Maryland researchers decided to try exploiting a phenomenon called relativistic self-focusing. As the laser travels through the plasma, it excites the electrons it hits, making them move back and forth in the laser field, and those at the center of the beam are the most affected. According to Relativity, the faster an object moves, the more its mass will increase, so the electrons at the center of the beam become heavier than those around them. This causes them to slow down and the beam to self-focus, increasing its intensity.

By exploiting this effect, the researchers were able to reduce the energy of the laser pulse to just millijoules, which is how much energy a typical lightbulb uses in a millisecond, while still observing acceleration. This could allow for particle accelerators so small they could be on carts. Also, because of how rapid and violent the acceleration of the particles is, they will radiate gamma rays in ultrashort bursts that could be used for safe medical imaging.

Source: University of Maryland

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