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New particle accelerator breaks records in compactness and energy

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with national laboratories, European universities, and TAU Systems Inc., have unveiled a groundbreaking compact measuring less than 20 meters. This innovation produces an electron beam with a remarkable energy of 10 billion electron volts (10 GeV), a feat previously achieved by only two other U.S. accelerators, each approximately 3 kilometers long.

“We can now achieve those energies in a space as small as 10 centimeters,” noted Bjorn “Manuel” Hegelich, the senior author of the study and associate professor of physics at UT, also serving as the CEO of TAU Systems. The achievement, detailed in the journal Matter and Radiation at Extremes, represents a significant leap in compact accelerator technology.

This advanced wakefield laser accelerator opens doors to diverse applications. The research team envisions its use in testing the resilience of space-bound electronics against radiation, exploring the 3D internal structures of emerging semiconductor chip designs through advanced imaging, and even pioneering innovative therapies and enhanced medical imaging techniques.

The compact nature of this accelerator addresses a longstanding challenge associated with conventional accelerators, which demand extensive space—often kilometers of it. By significantly reducing the size while achieving high electron energies, this technology becomes more accessible and cost-effective, potentially transforming the landscape of acceleration beyond the confines of a select few national labs and universities. The implications of this compact particle accelerator span semiconductor applications, medical advancements, and research in materials and energy, heralding a new era in particle acceleration technology.

A drawing of the compact wakefield laser accelerator developed at The University of Texas at Austin. A laser beam enters on the right side and travels into the gas cell where an electron beam is created, which travels eventually to two scintillating screens (DRZ1 and DRZ2) for analysis on the left side. Credit: University of Texas at Austin

A groundbreaking application of this accelerator lies in powering an X-ray free electron laser, capable of capturing slow-motion movies depicting atomic or molecular-scale processes. Examples encompass visualizing drug interactions with , understanding changes within batteries that might lead to combustion, studying inside solar panels, and observing how viral alter shape during cell infection.

The wakefield laser accelerator concept, first proposed in 1979, involves a powerful laser striking helium gas, transforming it into plasma and generating waves that propel electrons into a high-energy beam. Hegelich and his team's innovation hinges on nanoparticles. An auxiliary laser targets a metal plate inside a gas cell, releasing metal nanoparticles that enhance the energy delivered to electrons from the waves.

In analogy, the laser acts like a boat creating a wake on a lake, and electrons ride this plasma wave like surfers. Hegelich likens the nanoparticles to Jet Skis, strategically releasing electrons into the wave, ensuring they are precisely where needed.

Gas cell drawing. Inside, an extremely powerful laser strikes helium gas, heats it into a plasma and creates waves that kick electrons from the gas out in a high-energy electron beam. Nanoparticles—generated by a secondary laser shining through the top window and striking a metal plate—boost the energy transferred to the electrons. Credit: University of Texas at Austin

Using the Texas Petawatt Laser, one of the world's most potent pulsed lasers housed at UT, the researchers conducted their experiment. A single petawatt laser pulse exceeds the installed electrical power in the U.S. by about 1,000 times but lasts a mere 150 femtoseconds, significantly shorter than a lightning discharge.

The team's ultimate objective is to employ a tabletop-sized laser, currently under development, to power their system. This laser, firing repeatedly at thousands of times per second, promises a more compact accelerator, extending its utility beyond conventional settings. Co-first authors Constantin Aniculaesei and Thanh Ha, along with UT faculty members Todd Ditmire and Michael Downer, played integral roles in this pioneering research.

Hegelich and Aniculaesei have submitted a patent application detailing the device and the method for generating nanoparticles in a gas cell. TAU Systems, a spin-off from Hegelich's lab, holds an exclusive license for this foundational patent from the University. This breakthrough opens doors to a new era of particle acceleration, with implications ranging from fundamental research to applications in medicine, materials, and beyond.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

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