How a particle accelerator works


Particle acceleration is one of the great milestones of Science in general, and of Physics in particular. Discover in this article everything you need to know about particle accelerators.
The first thing you have to understand about particle accelerators is that they are instruments that use both electric fields and magnetic fields to drive particles that are electrically charged at very high speeds. The objective of a particle accelerator is usually to generate new particles and, in turn, study the energy produced by the collision of moving particles. Its applications are many and varied, and its origin is closely related to the principle of relativity .

  • Applications of a particle accelerator
  • Types of particle accelerators
    • linear particle accelerator
    • circular particle accelerator
  • storage rings
  • How many particle acceleration techniques are there?
    • Wideroë or Álvarez particle acceleration
    • Electrostatic particle acceleration

Applications of a particle accelerator

As I said above, the applications of a particle accelerator are many, having a real impact on our lives (even if we are unaware of it). In general, three applications are usually highlighted above the others. Firstly, particle accelerators are used in the field of physics for the detailed study of elementary particles (those that make up matter, such as protons, electrons, neutrons, pions or muons). . Secondly, the particle accelerator is a fundamental instrument in the medical sector, being widely used when administering radiotherapy in cancer treatments. Finally, particle accelerators are widely used by the military industry in the development and simulation of nuclear weapons.

How are particle accelerators used in Fundamental Physics?

Particle accelerators are essential when studying the Physics of the universe in detail. To do this, electrically charged particle accelerators, such as positrons, antiprotons, electrons or ions, reach speeds close to the speed of light (considered the speed limit of the universe), to subsequently collide. The objective of all this is to study and analyze the behavior of particles in motion and in collision, as well as the energy generated as a consequence of both actions.

Types of particle accelerators

At present, two types of particle accelerators are usually differentiated. On the one hand, linear accelerators and, on the other hand, circular accelerators. Let’s see below what they differ, and how each of them is used.

linear particle accelerator

Linear particle accelerators are made up of several successive sub-assemblies, and each of them has the objective of fulfilling several functions. First of all, charged particles are emitted thanks to a cathode. Subsequently, the particles are injected into an empty tube (filled with air, yes), in which the particles are accelerated. Finally, the generation of velocity (particle acceleration) is carried out , through different physical-technical procedures. Once all this process is done, the beam of particles is ready for use. In this case, they will be used to: produce high-power X-rays for medical purposes; generate collimation, theparticle beam restriction, with the intention of reducing harmful levels of scattered radiation, also for medical purposes; its connection to a circular particle accelerator, as part of the overall gear in the study of particle physics. All these questions were part of the most brilliant predictions in the world of physics .

Linear accelerators are, however, the oldest of all particle accelerators. They appeared in the year 1930 thanks to the Wideroë linear accelerator in the United States. Later, in the 1960s , a linear accelerator was built in Orsay (France), along with its famous Collision Ring de Orsay (ACO). Said collision ring was a great advance because, although we measured the energy produced by the particles in eV (electron-volt), the Orsay collider generated energy at another level: GeV (1,000,000,000 eVs ). Despite so much power, the Orsay linear accelerator was banished by that of Stanford, United States.The latter is the largest linear particle accelerator on the entire planet.

circular particle accelerator

It is not possible to speak of one type of circular particle accelerator, but of several types. In the first place, cyclotrons, which are accelerators where the trajectory of the accelerated particles takes on a spiral shape. This is achieved thanks to the curvature magnets, which can reach several meters in length. We also find synchrotrons, in which particles are accelerated in a circular path thanks to bending magnets. In the case of synchrotrons, as the particles are accelerated, the energy of the particles increases and, in turn, the magnetic field. Last, but certainly not least, we would find the colliders,which, in fact, are very similar to synchrotrons. This is so because the particles are also accelerated in a circular path, with an unchanging radius. The main difference between colliders and synchrotrons is that colliders aim to accelerate two different beams of particles in the opposite direction and, when the time comes, make them collide with each other. That collision generates a reaction and an energy that is, as a rule, the objective of the experiment. Among the most famous colliders in the world we find the Large Hadron Collider, located on the Franco-Swiss border.

storage rings

Storage rings were devised to store and circulate charged particles indefinitely. Most are built underground, and in them the particles reach very high speeds. To achieve this high speed of the particles, the rings consist of large electric fields and the trajectories are formed by magnetic fields. The objective is very similar to that of the colliders, since, once a certain speed is reached, the particles collide against each other, generating new particles and gigantic amounts of energy.

How many particle acceleration techniques are there?

There are different ways to accelerate particles inside an accelerator. However, the two most relevant acceleration techniques are: electrostatic acceleration and the Luis Álvarez technique (also known as Wideroë).

Wideroë or Álvarez particle acceleration

The particle beam passes through a series of cavities where an alternating current field exists. In these alternating current changes, the beam can reach an energy of more power than in electrostatic acceleration.

Electrostatic particle acceleration

In this type of acceleration, a high voltage is applied between two electrodes, which generates an electric field. Simply put, that energy produced is equivalent in electronvolts to the potential differential.

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