Particle Accelerator on a Glass Chip: New Technology Could Help Science and Medicine (Video)

First Posted: Sep 30, 2013 08:27 AM EDT

Could particle accelerators be small enough to fit on a grain of rice? Apparently they could in the future. Scientists have used a laser to accelerate electrons at a rate 10 times higher than conventional technology in a nanostructured glass chip. The findings could dramatically alter the way we use particle accelerators for both science and medicine.

Today's accelerators use microwaves to boost the energy of electrons. Yet for years, researchers have hunted for more economical alternatives. This new technique seems to accomplish that. It employs commercial lasers and low-cost, mass-production methods, which is huge moving forward with this chip.

So how does the chip work? Electrons are first accelerated to near light-speed in a conventional accelerator. Then these particles are focused into a tiny, half-micron-high channel within a fused silica glass chip just have a millimeter long. This channel was patterned with precisely spaced nanoscale ridges. Infrared laser light shining on the pattern generated electrical fields that interacted with the electrons in the channel to boost their energy.

"We still have a number of challenges before this technology becomes practical for real-world use, but eventually it would substantially reduce the size and cost of future high-energy particle colliders for exploring the world of fundamental particles and forces," said Joel England, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It could help enable compact accelerators and X-ray devices for security scanning, medical therapy and imaging and research in biology and materials science."

In fact, the new "accelerator on a chip" could match the accelerating power of SLAC's 2-mile-long linear accelerator in just 100 feet at its full potential. In addition, the new method could deliver a million more electron pulses per second. This first experiment has already managed to achieve an acceleration gradient of 300 million electronvolts per meter.

"Our ultimate goal for this structure is 1 billion electronvolts per meter, and we're already one-third of the way in our first experiment," said Robert Byer, the lead researcher, in a news release.

The new particle accelerator could be extremely useful in the future. In fact, applications could go beyond particle physics research. For now, though, scientists are still working to make this particular method practical.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

Want to learn more? Check out the video below, courtesy of YouTube.

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