Particle accelerators have helped us unravel some of the universe’s biggest mysteries, but they’re huge, expensive, and inaccessible to most researchers. A new particle accelerator on a chip could soon change that.
The world’s biggest particle accelerators can be miles long and require megawatts of power to run. Even devices used to generate particle beams for medical therapies can be the size of a room. So in 2015, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded Stanford University $13.5 million to build a particle accelerator the size of a shoebox and put these crucial scientific and industrial tools in the hands of far more scientists.
Now, researchers have developed a tiny silicon chip smaller than the width of a human hair that can accelerate electrons using an infrared laser. The output is only a fraction of that of a large accelerator, but the researchers plan to combine a thousand of these devices by the end of this year to accelerate electrons to 94 percent of the speed of light, or 1 million electron volts (1MeV), which would be powerful enough for research or medical purposes.
“The largest accelerators are like powerful telescopes. There are only a few in the world and scientists must come to places like SLAC [the Stanford Linear Accelerator] to use them,” Jelena Vuckovic, who led the research, said in a press release. “We want to miniaturize accelerator technology in a way that makes it a more accessible research tool.”
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