Breakthrough could lead to portable particle accelerators

9 Nov 2015

Used commonly for cancer therapy and medical imaging, a particle accelerator takes up a lot of space due to its requirements, but now a team from the University of Maryland (UMD) has discovered a way to make it portable.

At the largest, particle accelerators can resemble what is currently buried underground between the border of France and Switzerland – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

In everyday uses, however, it’s more commonly seen room-size in hospitals and research labs.

That is why by cracking the ability to accelerate electron beams to almost the speed of light using record-low laser energies, the UMD team believes it can overcome one of the greatest engineering obstacles, thereby making the particle accelerator small enough to be portable.

Reporting on its findings in Physical Review Letters, the UMD team said that it was able to create high-charge electron beams to more than 10m electron volts using only millijoules laser energy and shooting it into hydrogen gas.

Particle accelerator diagram

A diagram of the portable particle accelerator concept. Image via Howard Milchberg/George Hine

Can be moved on a cart

When this laser passes through the hydrogen gas plasma, the electrons within begin to wiggle back and forth, causing them to grow in size at the centre of the beam due to Einstein’s law of relativity.

The resulting effects leads to the beam self-focusing while gaining intensity before it collapses, leaving a strong plasma wake that reduces the amount of energy needed by as much as 20-times that of a typical experiment.

“This is the energy consumed by a typical household lightbulb in one-thousandth of a second,” said Howard Milchberg, the senior author of the study. “Because the laser energy requirement is so low, our result opens the way for laser-driven particle accelerators that can be moved around on a cart.”

It could even work just by plugging it into a wall socket to allow a medical professional to develop safe medical imaging anywhere that it’s required.

Otherwise, UMD’s portable particle accelerator could develop advancements in materials science and nanotechnology using optical strobe lights that can capture the motion of electrons as they swarm across their atomic orbits.

Plasma illustration via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic