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Big Power in a Small Package, UT Austin's Pint-Sized Particle Accelerator Hits 10 GeV Punch

Big Power in a Small Package, UT Austin's Pint-Sized Particle Accelerator Hits 10 GeV PunchSource: University of Texas
Natalie Petrovich
Published on November 29, 2023

In a quest to revolutionize the world of particle acceleration, a team from The University of Texas at Austin has collaborated with national laboratories and a cohort of international partners to buck the trend of sprawling accelerator facilities. According to a recent release from the university, these researchers have managed to construct a compact particle accelerator that barely stretches beyond 20 meters yet punches above its weight class with an electron beam clocking in at a hefty 10 billion electron volts (10 GeV) – an energy frontier typically reserved for its kilometer-long brethren.

The implications of this downsized dynamo, developed by UT's own Bjorn “Manuel” Hegelich, who doubles as the CEO of TAU Systems Inc., are nothing short of groundbreaking. As reported by the University of Texas news outlet, Hegelich emphasized their achievement by noting, “We can now reach those energies in 10 centimeters,” a statement conveying the groundbreaking shift from sprawling complexes to something akin to a lab bench. This feat, distilled into a Matter and Radiation at Extremes paper, not only smashes spatial constraints but also pivots to promise significant advancements in fields such as semiconductor testing and medical imaging.

Indeed, this advanced wakefield laser accelerator dreams big, with ambitions to thrust into action for testing space-bound electronics' radiation endurance, providing a peek into the 3D innards of new semiconductor chip designs, and potentially ushering in novel cancer therapies along with avant-garde medical-imaging techniques. Hegelich and his team's ingenuity is captured in their method, whereby an auxiliary laser strategically strikes a metal plate, to consequently release a stream of nanoparticles, crafting an optimal electron-boosting environment.

By shrinking the once unfathomable into the palpably practical, the team delineates fresh horizons; the compact accelerator may soon drive another cutting-edge device, the X-ray free electron laser, to capture slow-motion cinematic portrayals of minute processes like drug interactions with cells or viral proteins shape-shifting during infection. Hegelich illustrates their method by likening it to a boat skimming across the water, its trail of wakes allowing electrons to hang ten on these plasma waves. And the nanotechnology at play here? They function as miniature "Jet Skis", perfectly timing the release of electrons to catch the wave, as Hegelich poetically framed it. “It’s hard to get into a big wave without getting overpowered, so wake surfers get dragged in by Jet Skis,” he told UT News. “In our accelerator, the equivalent of Jet Skis are nanoparticles that release electrons at just the right point and time, so they are all sitting in the wave. We get a lot more electrons into the wave when and where we want them to be, rather than statistically distributed over the whole interaction, and that’s our secret sauce."

Further refining their game-changing approach, Hegelich's team keenly eyes the day they could power their system with a tabletop laser, a work in progress slated to fire in rapid, repetitive succession. This strategy could scale up the usability of this compact accelerator, portending a future where such technology permeates beyond the traditional walls of national labs and universities and into a gamut of practical applications. The work was bolstered by funding veins from entities including the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the U.S. Department of Energy, truly powering the next wave in accelerator technology.

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