There are many types of accelerator designs, although all have certain features in common. Only charged particles (most commonly protons and electrons, and their antiparticles; less often deuterons, alpha particles, and heavy ions) can be artificially accelerated; therefore, the first stage of any accelerator is an ion source to produce the charged particles from a neutral gas. All accelerators use electric fields (steady, alternating, or induced) to speed up particles; most use magnetic fields to contain and focus the beam. Meson factories (the largest of which is at the Los Alamos, N.Mex., Scientific Laboratory), so called because of their copious pion production by high-current proton beams, operate at conventional energies but produce much more intense beams than previous accelerators; this makes it possible to repeat early experiments much more accurately. In linear accelerators the particle path is a straight line; in other machines, of which the cyclotron is the prototype, a magnetic field is used to bend the particles in a circular or spiral path.
The early linear accelerators used high voltage to produce high-energy particles; a large static electric charge was built up, which produced an electric field along the length of an evacuated tube, and the particles acquired energy as they moved through the electric field. The Cockcroft-Walton accelerator produced high voltage by charging a bank of capacitors in parallel and then connecting them in series, thereby adding up their separate voltages. The Van de Graaff accelerator achieved high voltage by using a continuously recharged moving belt to deliver charge to a high-voltage terminal consisting of a hollow metal sphere. Today these two electrostatic machines are used in low-energy studies of nuclear structure and in the injection of particles into larger, more powerful machines. Linear accelerators can be used to produce higher energies, but this requires increasing their length.
Linear accelerators, in which there is very little radiation loss, are the most powerful and efficient electron accelerators; the largest of these, the Stanford Univ. linear accelerator (SLAC), completed in 1957, is 2 mi (3.2 km) long and produces 20-GeV—in nuclear physics energies are commonly measured in millions (MeV) or billions (GeV) of electron-volts (eV)—electrons. New linear machines differ from earlier electrostatic machines in that they use electric fields alternating at radio frequencies to accelerate the particles, instead of using high voltage. The acceleration tube has segments that are charged alternately positive and negative. When a group of particles passes through the tube, it is repelled by the segment it has left and is attracted by the segment it is approaching. Thus the final energy is attained by a series of pushes and pulls. Recently, linear accelerators have been used to accelerate heavy ions such as carbon, neon, and nitrogen.
In order to reach high energy without the prohibitively long paths required of linear accelerators, E. O. Lawrence proposed (1932) that particles could be accelerated to high energies in a small space by making them travel in a circular or nearly circular path. In the cyclotron, which he invented, a cylindrical magnet bends the particle trajectories into a circular path whose radius depends on the mass of the particles, their velocity, and the strength of the magnetic field. The particles are accelerated within a hollow, circular, metal box that is split in half to form two sections, each in the shape of the capital letter D. A radio-frequency electric field is impressed across the gap between the D's so that every time a particle crosses the gap, the polarity of the D's is reversed and the particle gets an accelerating "kick." The key to the simplicity of the cyclotron is that the period of revolution of a particle remains the same as the radius of the path increases because of the increase in velocity. Thus, the alternating electric field stays in step with the particles as they spiral outward from the center of the cyclotron to its circumference. However, according to the theory of relativity the mass of a particle increases as its velocity approaches the speed of light; hence, very energetic, high-velocity particles will have greater mass and thus less acceleration, with the result that they will not remain in step with the field. For protons, the maximum energy attainable with an ordinary cyclotron is about 10 million electron-volts.
Two approaches exist for exceeding the relativistic limit for cyclotrons. In the synchrocyclotron, the frequency of the accelerating electric field steadily decreases to match the decreasing angular velocity of the protons. In the isochronous cyclotron, the magnet is constructed so the magnetic field is stronger near the circumference than at the center, thus compensating for the mass increase and maintaining a constant frequency of revolution. The first synchrocyclotron, built at the Univ. of California at Berkeley in 1946, reached energies high enough to create pions, thus inaugurating the laboratory study of the meson family of elementary particles.
Further progress in physics required energies in the GeV range, which led to the development of the synchrotron. In this device, a ring of magnets surrounds a doughnut-shaped vacuum tank. The magnetic field rises in step with the proton velocities, thus keeping them moving in a circle of nearly constant radius, instead of the widening spiral of the cyclotron. The entire center section of the magnet is eliminated, making it possible to build rings with diameters measured in miles. Particles must be injected into a synchrotron from another accelerator. The first proton synchrotron was the cosmotron at Brookhaven (N.Y.) National Laboratory, which began operation in 1952 and eventually attained an energy of 3 GeV. The 6.2-GeV synchrotron (the bevatron) at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was used to discover the antiproton (see antiparticle).
The 500-GeV synchrotron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory at Batavia, Ill., was built to be the most powerful accelerator in the world in the early 1970s; the ring has a circumference of approximately 4 mi (6 km). The machine was upgraded in 1983 to accelerate protons and counterpropagating antiprotons to such enormous speeds that the ensuing impacts deliver energies of up to 2 trillion electron-volts (TeV)—hence the ring has been dubbed the Tevatron. The Tevatron is an example of a so-called colliding-beams machine, which is really a double accelerator that causes two separate beams to collide, either head-on or at a grazing angle. Because of relativistic effects, producing the same reactions with a conventional accelerator would require a single beam hitting a stationary target with much more than twice the energy of either of the colliding beams.
Plans were made to build a huge accelerator in Waxahachie, Tex. Called the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), a ring 54 mi (87 km) in circumference lined with superconducting magnets (see superconductivity) was intended to produce 40 TeV particle collisions. The program was ended in 1993, however, when government funding was stopped.
In Nov., 2009, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a synchroton constructed by CERN, became operational and the following month accelerated protons to nearly 1.2 TeV to produce collisions of 2.36 TeV, a new record. The LHC's main ring, which uses superconducting magnets, is housed in a circular tunnel some 17 mi (27 km) long on the French-Swiss border; the tunnel was originally constructed for the Large Electron Positron Collider, which operated from 1989 to 2000. Designed to produce collisions involving protons that have been accelerated to 7 TeV (and collisions of lead nuclei at lower energies), the LHC will not reach its full potential until after an overhaul in 2010. The LHC will be used to prove (or disprove) the existence of the Higgs boson and investigate quarks, gluons, and other particles and aspects of physics' Standard Model (see elementary particles).
The synchrotron can be used to accelerate electrons but is inefficient. An electron moves much faster than a proton of the same energy and hence loses much more energy in synchrotron radiation. A circular machine used to accelerate electrons is the betatron, invented by Donald Kerst in 1939. Electrons are injected into a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber that surrounds a magnetic field. The magnetic field is steadily increased, inducing a tangential electric field that accelerates the electrons (see induction).
A linear particle accelerator (also called a linac) is an electrical device for the acceleration of subatomic particles. This sort of particle accelerator has many applications, from the generation of X-rays in a hospital environment, to an injector into a higher energy synchrotron at a dedicated experimental particle physics laboratory. The design of a linac depends on the type of particle that is being accelerated: electron, proton or ion. They range in size from a cathode ray tube to the 2-mile long Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California.
As the particle bunch passes through the tube it is unaffected (the tube acts as a Faraday cage), while the frequency of the driving signal and the spacing of the gaps between electrodes are designed so that the maximum voltage differential appears as the particle crosses the gap. This accelerates the particle, imparting energy to it in the form of increased velocity. At speeds near the speed of light, the incremental velocity increase will be small, with the energy appearing as an increase in the mass of the particles. In portions of the accelerator where this occurs, the tubular electrode lengths will be almost constant.
The acceleration of the particles can be made with three general methods:
Linacs are also capable of prodigious output, producing a nearly continuous stream of particles, whereas a synchrotron will only periodically raise the particles to sufficient energy to merit a "shot" at the target. (The burst can be held or stored in the ring at energy to give the experimental electronics time to work, but the average output current is still limited.) The high density of the output makes the linac particularly attractive for use in loading storage ring facilities with particles in preparation for particle to particle collisions. The high mass output also makes the device practical for the production of antimatter particles, which are generally difficult to obtain, being only a small fraction of a target's collision products. These may then be stored and further used to study matter-antimatter annihilation.
As there are no primary bending magnets, this cost of an accelerator is reduced.
Medical grade linacs accelerate electrons using tuned-cavity waveguide in which the RF power creates a standing wave. Some linacs have short, vertically mounted waveguides, while higher energy machines tend to have a horizontal, longer waveguide and a bending magnet to turn the beam vertically towards the patient. Medical linacs utilise monoenergetic electron beams between 4 and 25 MeV, giving an x-ray output with a spectrum of energies up to and including the electron energy when the electrons are directed at a high-density (such as tungsten) target. The electrons or x-rays can be used to treat both benign and malignant disease. The reliability, flexibility and accuracy of the radiation beam produced has largely supplanted cobalt therapy as a treatment tool. In addition, the device can simply be powered off when not in use; there is no source requiring heavy shielding.
At the end all fields are absorbed by a dummy load or cavity losses.