Device that accelerates a beam of fast-moving, electrically charged atoms (ions) or subatomic particles. Accelerators are used to study the structure of atomic nuclei (see atom) and the nature of subatomic particles and their fundamental interactions. At speeds close to that of light, particles collide with and disrupt atomic nuclei and subatomic particles, allowing physicists to study nuclear components and to make new kinds of subatomic particles. The cyclotron accelerates positively charged particles, while the betatron accelerates negatively charged electrons. Synchrotrons and linear accelerators are used either with positively charged particles or electrons. Accelerators are also used for radioisotope production, cancer therapy, biological sterilization, and one form of radiocarbon dating.
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Type of particle accelerator that imparts a series of relatively small increases in energy to subatomic particles as they pass through a sequence of alternating electric fields set up in a linear structure. The small accelerations add together to give the particles a greater energy than could be achieved by the voltage used in one section alone. One of the world's longest linacs is the 2-mi (3.2-km) machine at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, which can accelerate electrons to energies of 50 billion electron volts. Much smaller linacs, both proton and electron types, have important practical applications in medicine and industry.
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