A particle accelerator (or atom smasher) is a device that uses electric fields to propel electrically-charged particles to high speeds and to contain them. An ordinary CRT television set is a simple form of accelerator. There are two basic types: linear accelerators and circular accelerators.
This page describes types of particle accelerators. For a list of existing and historic particle accelerators see: List of accelerators in particle physics.
At a higher level of complexity, nuclear physicists and cosmologists may use beams of bare atomic nuclei, stripped of electrons, to investigate the structure, interactions, and properties of the nuclei themselves, and of condensed matter at extremely high temperatures and densities, such as might have occurred in the first moments of the Big Bang. These investigations often involve collisions of heavy nuclei--of atoms like iron or gold--at energies of several GeV per nucleon. At lower energies, beams of accelerated nuclei are also used in medicine, as for the treatment of cancer.
Besides being of fundamental interest, high energy electrons may be coaxed into emitting extremely bright and coherent beams of high energy photons--ultraviolet and X ray--via synchrotron radiation, which photons have numerous uses in the study of atomic structure, chemistry, condensed matter physics, biology, and technology. Examples include the ESRF in Europe, which has recently been used to extract detailed 3-dimensional images of insects trapped in amber. Thus there is a great demand for electron accelerators of moderate (GeV) energy and high intensity.
DC accelerator types capable of accelerating particles to speeds sufficient to cause nuclear reactions are Cockcroft-Walton generators or voltage multipliers, which convert AC to high voltage DC, or Van de Graaff generators that use static electricity carried by belts.
The largest and most powerful particle accelerators, such as the RHIC, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) (scheduled to start operation in February 2009) and the Tevatron, are used for experimental particle physics.
Particle accelerators can also produce proton beams, which can produce "proton-heavy" medical or research isotopes as opposed to the "neutron-heavy" ones made in fission reactors. An example of this type of machine is LANSCE at Los Alamos.
Linear high-energy accelerators use a linear array of plates (or drift tubes) to which an alternating high-energy field is applied. As the particles approach a plate they are accelerated towards it by an opposite polarity charge applied to the plate. As they pass through a hole in the plate, the polarity is switched so that the plate now repels them and they are now accelerated by it towards the next plate. Normally a stream of "bunches" of particles are accelerated, so a carefully controlled AC voltage is applied to each plate to continuously repeat this process for each bunch.
As the particles approach the speed of light the switching rate of the electric fields becomes so high that they operate at microwave frequencies, and so RF cavity resonators are used in higher energy machines instead of simple plates.
Linear accelerators are also widely used in medicine, for radiotherapy and radiosurgery. Medical grade LINACs accelerate electrons using a klystron and a complex bending magnet arrangement which produces a beam of 6-30 million electron-volt (MeV) energy. The electrons can be used directly or they can be collided with a target to produce a beam of X-rays. The reliability, flexibility and accuracy of the radiation beam produced has largely supplanted the older use of Cobalt-60 therapy as a treatment tool.
Depending on the energy and the particle being accelerated, circular accelerators suffer a disadvantage in that the particles emit synchrotron radiation. When any charged particle is accelerated, it emits electromagnetic radiation and secondary emissions. As a particle traveling in a circle is always accelerating towards the center of the circle, it continuously radiates towards the tangent of the circle. This radiation is called synchrotron light and depends highly on the mass of the accelerating particle. For this reason, many high energy electron accelerators are linacs. Certain accelerators (synchrotrons) are however built specially for producing synchrotron light (X-rays).
Since the special theory of relativity requires that matter always travels slower than the speed of light in a vacuum, in high-energy accelerators, as the energy increases the particle speed approaches the speed of light as a limit, never quite attained. Therefore particle physicists do not generally think in terms of speed, but rather in terms of a particle's energy or momentum, usually measured in electron volts (eV). An important principle for circular accelerators, and particle beams in general, is that the curvature of the particle trajectory is proportional to the particle charge and to the magnetic field, but inversely proportional to the (typically relativistic) momentum.
Cyclotrons reach an energy limit because of relativistic effects whereby the particles effectively become more massive, so that their cyclotron frequency drops out of synch with the accelerating RF. Therefore simple cyclotrons can accelerate protons only to an energy of around 15 million electron volts (15 MeV, corresponding to a speed of roughly 10% of c), because the protons get out of phase with the driving electric field. If accelerated further, the beam would continue to spiral outward to a larger radius but the particles would no longer gain enough speed to complete the larger circle in step with the accelerating RF. Cyclotrons are nevertheless still useful for lower energy applications.
Another possibility, the synchrocyclotron, accelerates the particles in bunches, in a constant B field, but reduces the RF accelerating field's frequency so as to keep the particles in step as they spiral outward. This approach suffers from low average beam intensity due to the bunching, and again from the need for a huge magnet of large radius and constant field over the larger orbit demanded by high energy.
However, since the particle momentum increases during acceleration, it is necessary to turn up the magnetic field B in proportion to maintain constant curvature of the orbit. In consequence synchrotrons cannot accelerate particles continuously, as cyclotrons can, but must operate cyclically, supplying particles in bunches, which are delivered to a target or an external beam in beam "spills" typically every few seconds.
Since high energy synchrotrons do most of their work on particles that are already traveling at nearly the speed of light c, the time to complete one orbit of the ring is nearly constant, as is the frequency of the RF cavity resonators used to drive the acceleration.
Note also a further point about modern synchrotrons: because the beam aperture is small and the magnetic field does not cover the entire area of the particle orbit as it does for a cyclotron, several necessary functions can be separated. Instead of one huge magnet, one has a line of hundreds of bending magnets, enclosing (or enclosed by) vacuum connecting pipes. The focusing of the beam is handled independently by specialized quadrupole magnets, while the acceleration itself is accomplished in separate RF sections, rather similar to short linear accelerators. Also, there is no necessity that cyclic machines be circular, but rather the beam pipe may have straight sections between magnets where beams may collide. be cooled, etc.
More complex modern synchrotrons such as the Tevatron, LEP, and LHC may deliver the particle bunches into storage rings of magnets with constant B, where they can continue to orbit for long periods for experimentation or further acceleration. The highest-energy machines such as the Tevatron and LHC are actually accelerator complexes, with a cascade of specialized elements in series, including linear accelerators for initial beam creation, one or more low energy synchrotrons to reach intermediate energy, storage rings where beams can be accumulated or "cooled" (reducing the magnet aperture required and permitting tighter focusing; see beam cooling), and a last large ring for final acceleration and experimentation.
Circular electron accelerators fell somewhat out of favor for particle physics around the time that SLAC was constructed, because their synchrotron losses were considered economically prohibitive and because their beam intensity was lower than for the unpulsed linear machines. The Cornell Electron Synchrotron, built at low cost in the late 1960s, was the first in a series of high-energy circular electron accelerators built for fundamental particle physics, culminating in the LEP at CERN.
A large number of electron synchrotrons have been built in the past two decades, specialized to be synchrotron light sources, of ultraviolet light and X rays; see below.
Synchrotron radiation is more powerfully emitted by lighter particles, so these accelerators are invariably electron accelerators. Synchrotron radiation allows for better imaging as researched and developed at SLAC's SPEAR.
The first large proton synchrotron was the Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which accelerated protons to about 3 GeV. The Bevatron at Berkeley, completed in 1954, was specifically designed to accelerate protons to sufficient energy to create anti-protons, and verify the particle-antiparticle symmetry of nature, then only strongly suspected. The Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS) at Brookhaven was the first large synchrotron with alternating gradient, "strong focusing" magnets, which greatly reduced the required aperture of the beam, and correspondingly the size and cost of the bending magnets. The Proton Synchrotron, built at CERN, was the first major European particle accelerator and generally similar to the AGS.
The Fermilab Tevatron has a ring with a beam path of 4 miles (6 km). The largest circular accelerator ever built was the LEP synchrotron at CERN with a circumference 26.6 kilometers, which was an electron/positron collider. It has been dismantled and the underground tunnel is being reused for a proton/antiproton collider called the LHC, due to start operation in at the end of July 2008. The aborted Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas would have had a circumference of 87 km. Construction was started in 1991, but abandoned in 1993. Very large circular accelerators are invariably built in underground tunnels a few metres wide to minimize the disruption and cost of building such a structure on the surface, and to provide shielding against intense secondary radiations that may occur. These are extremely penetrating at high energies.
Current accelerators such as the Spallation Neutron Source, incorporate superconducting cryomodules. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, and upcoming Large Hadron Collider also make use of superconducting magnets and RF cavity resonators to accelerate particles.
This is usually a fixed target, such as the phosphor coating on the back of the screen in the case of a television tube; a piece of uranium in an accelerator designed as a neutron source; or a tungsten target for an X-ray generator. In a linac, the target is simply fitted to the end of the accelerator. The particle track in a cyclotron is a spiral outwards from the centre of the circular machine, so the accelerated particles emerge from a fixed point as for a linear accelerator.
For synchrotrons, the situation is more complex. Particles are accelerated to the desired energy. Then, a fast acting dipole magnet is used to switch the particles out of the circular synchrotron tube and towards the target.
A variation commonly used for particle physics research is a collider, also called a storage ring collider. Two circular synchrotrons are built in close proximity - usually on top of each other and using the same magnets (which are then of more complicated design to accommodate both beam tubes). Bunches of particles travel in opposite directions around the two accelerators and collide at intersections between them. This can increase the energy enormously; whereas in a fixed-target experiment the energy available to produce new particles is proportional to the square root of the beam energy, in a collider the available energy is linear.
As of 2005, it is believed that plasma wakefield acceleration in the form of electron-beam 'afterburners' and standalone laser pulsers will provide dramatic increases in efficiency within two to three decades. In plasma wakefield accelerators, the beam cavity is filled with a plasma (rather than vacuum). A short pulse of electrons or laser light either constitutes or immediately trails the particles that are being accelerated. The pulse disrupts the plasma, causing the charged particles in the plasma to integrate into and move toward the rear of the bunch of particles that are being accelerated. This process transfers energy to the particle bunch, accelerating it further, and continues as long as the pulse is coherent.
Energy gradients as steep as 200 GeV/m have been achieved over millimeter-scale distances using laser pulsers and gradients approaching 1 GeV/m are being produced on the multi-centimeter-scale with electron-beam systems, in contrast to a limit of about 0.1 GeV/m for radio-frequency acceleration alone. Existing electron accelerators such as SLAC could use electron-beam afterburners to greatly increase the energy of their particle beams, at the cost of beam intensity. Electron systems in general can provide tightly collimated, reliable beams; laser systems may offer more power and compactness. Thus, plasma wakefield accelerators could be used — if technical issues can be resolved — to both increase the maximum energy of the largest accelerators and to bring high energies into university laboratories and medical centres.