Smaller, more powerful accelerators might be coming.

NEXT-LEVEL ACCELERATORS. Particle accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), are super useful. They can teach us about how the universe first formed, help us understand our world on a subatomic level, and help discover medical breakthroughs. And now, a group comprising of more than 80 engineers and physicists has successfully demonstrated a new technique that could make powerful accelerators even more accessible to researchers.

The group, known as the AWAKE Collaboration, published its research on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

RIDING THE PLASMA WAVE. A particle accelerator's job is to increase the speed and energy of a beam of particles. Most particle accelerators do this by creating electric and magnetic fields that speed up and steer, respectively, the beams of particles along the length of the accelerator.

Once the particles are moving nice and fast, we can slam them into stuff, breaking them open in the process, giving us a glimpse into their inner-workings. This is useful for general physics research — we're always trying to figure out more about the subatomic world — but accelerators also have applications within a number of industries, including medicine and energy.

A few accelerators, though, use a technique called plasma wakefield acceleration to speed up particles. An intense laser pulse or a group of electrons moving at just under the speed of light creates a wave in a plasma (a wakefield) on which particles can ride, like subatomic surfers, to increase their speed and energy.

In the new study, the AWAKE Collaboration details its successful demonstration of using protons (and not electrons) to create this plasma wave. This switch to protons can propel particles to higher energy levels in a single accelerating stage, the researchers write — other forms of plasma wakefield acceleration require multiple stages to reach the same energy levels.

The researchers believe their proton-based technique could allow us to create accelerators that are both smaller and more powerful in the future.

INCREASED ACCESS. To discover the Higgs boson particle, researchers needed to use the LHC, an accelerator shaped into a loop 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) long.

Constructing such massive particle accelerators is neither easy nor cheap — the LHC took 10 years and cost approximately $5 billion — so there simply aren't that many of them. This can mean that not every researcher who wants to conduct an experiment on a powerful accelerator has the opportunity to do so.

Though the AWAKE team's research is still in its early stages, we now know that proton-based plasma wakefield acceleration is possible. That means we can start planning for a time when powerful accelerators are more widely available. And hopefully, that availability will lead to even more remarkable particle insights in the near future.

READ MOREParticle Physics: AWAKEning the Future of High-Energy Particle Accelerators [Nature Research]

More on particle accelerators: How Does the Large Hadron Collider Work?

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