Maximilien Brice /CERN
Hard Science

The Next Generation of Particle Accelerators is Leading to a New Kind of Physics

A better beam to fight cancer.

Chelsea GohdJanuary 30th 2017

A Better Beam

Particle accelerators are machines that, put simply, accelerate basic particles like electrons and protons to extremely high levels of energy. The beams of charged particles created by these machines travel through a vacuum, steered by electromagnets. When the focused beam comes in contact with a target, particles and radiation can be produced. These beams are used for both medical and research purposes.

Recently, a group of physicists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) worked together with scientists from both South Korea and Germany to improve the stability and intensity of particle accelerator beams. The research was documented in a paper in the November issue of Physical Review Letters.

These scientists have only created theoretical framework for these improvements, but according to PPPL physicist Dr. Hong Qin, “When physicists design the next-generation of accelerators, they could use this theory to create the most optimized focused beams.”

The intensity of a particle beam depends on the ability of the particles in the beam to stay as close together as possible. As the particles travel through the beam, the intensity typically decreases because of particles repulsing each other and small inconsistencies. While the electromagnets that guide the particles usually minimize the degradation of intensity, it is still an inevitable facet of these machines.

This new research theoretically shows how the stability of the particles could be increased by pairing together vertical and horizontal particle motion. Previous theories treated all particle motion as independent, but this change in perspective could affect the future effectiveness of particle accelerators.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What This Could Mean

According to the paper that detailed this research, the new development could “provide important new theoretical tools for the detailed design and analysis of high-intensity beam manipulations.” While this might seem like a development important only to nuclear physicists keen on advancing technical niche research, this advancement could have much wider applications – and could bring us closer to the ‘dark sector of physics.’

Particle accelerator beams are essential to modern medicine, allowing for basic medical treatments and advanced measures of diagnoses – they are most notably used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. If these beams can be improved and made more reliable, the possible future medical advantages could be limitless.

Outside of both medical and research applications, the manufacturing of many modern products is made possible by these beams. From computer chips to plastic wrap, most of us come in contact with products made using these beams every day.

As this theoretical breakthrough eventually materializes through application, hopefully, we will see that increasing the intensity and stability of particle accelerator beams will allow for the continuation of modern advances in medicine and research.

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