Home Tech News This tiny particle accelerator fits in a large room — making it much more practical than CERN’s

This tiny particle accelerator fits in a large room — making it much more practical than CERN’s

by techadopters

In 2010, when scientists were preparing to smash the first particles together within the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), sections of the media fantasized that the EU-wide experiment might create a black hole that could swallow and destroy our planet. How on Earth, columnists fumed, could scientists justify such a dangerous indulgence in the pursuit of abstract, theoretical knowledge?

But particle accelerators are much more than enormous toys for scientists to play with. They have practical uses too, though their sheer size has, so far, prevented their widespread use. Now, as part of large-scale European collaboration, my team has published a report that explains in detail how a far smaller particle accelerator could be built – closer to the size of a large room, rather than a large city.

Inspired by the technological and scientific know-how of machines like the LHC, our particle accelerator is designed to be as small as possible so it can be put to immediate practical use in industry, in healthcare, and in universities.

Collider scope

The biggest collider in the world, the LHC, uses particle acceleration to achieve the astonishing speeds at which it collides particles. This system was used to measure the sought-after Higgs boson particle – one of the most elusive particles predicted by the Standard Model, which is our current model to describe the structure and operation of the universe.

Less giant and glamorous particle accelerators have been around since the early 1930s, performing useful jobs as well as causing collisions to help our understanding of fundamental science. Accelerated particles are used to generate radioactive materials and strong bursts of radiation, which are crucial for healthcare processes such as radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, and CT scans.

The typical downside to accelerators is that they tend to be bulky, complex to run, and often prohibitively expensive. The LHC represents a pinnacle of experimental physics, but it is 27 kilometers (17 miles) in circumference and costs 6.5 billion Swiss francs (£5.2 billion) to build and test. The accelerators currently installed in select hospitals are smaller and cheaper, but they still cost tens of millions of pounds and require 400x400m of space for installation. As such, only large regional hospitals can afford the money and the space to host a radiotherapy department.

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Why exactly do accelerators need to be so big? The simple answer is that if they were any smaller, they’d break. Since they’re based on solid materials, ramping up the power too much would tear the system apart, creating a very expensive mess.