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What Are Particle Accelerators?

Nuclear Explained

Particle accelerators produce and accelerate beams of charged particles, such as electrons, protons and ions, of atomic and sub-atomic size. They are used not only in fundamental research for an improved understanding of matter, but also in plethora of socioeconomic applications related to health, environmental monitoring, food quality, energy and aerospace technologies, and others.

How do they work?

Particle accelerators can be linear (straight) or circular in shape and have many different sizes. They can be tens of kilometers long or fit in a small room, but all accelerators feature four principal components.

(1) A source which produces the charged particles.

(2) A composite device to add energy to the particles and speed them up by applying a static or an oscillating electric field;

(3) A sequence of metallic tubes in vacuum to allow the particles to move freely in without colliding with air molecules or dust which can dissipate the beam;

(4) A system of electromagnets to steer and focus the beam particles or change their trajectories before being bombarded on a target sample.

How are particle beams used?

Beams can be used to sterilize medical equipment and can produce radioisotopes required to synthesize radiopharmaceuticals for cancer diagnosis and therapy. Large accelerators are also used to destroy cancer cells, reveal the structure of proteins and viruses, and optimize vaccines and new drugs.

A few accelerators — the largest ones — are used to make sub-nuclear particles collide at nearly the speed of light to advance our knowledge of the origins of our universe. Some of these accelerators are also used to produce neutrons, normally offered for diverse usage by nuclear research reactors.

Typically proton beams can be used to detect trace chemical elements in the air, water or soil. For example, chemicals in air samples are collected with special filters which are studied with analytical techniques. The results reveal the concentration and composition of the different pollutants and provide a unique signature of the air quality.

Beams can interact with the atoms of a target materials to make the material, for example, more durable.

What is a Particle Accelerator?

Particle accelerators have many applications in medicine, industry and research. These machines accelerate charged particles, such as electrons and protons, to high speeds, sometimes even close to the speed of light.

What are the different types of particle accelerators?

Ion implanters
Ion implanters are widely used in industry to, for example, make materials more resistant to damage from wear and usage. Around 12 000 ion implanters around the world help fabricate semiconductors for cell phones and solar panels. They are also used in metal, ceramic and glass finishings to harden surfaces, make them more durable and improve their longevity. Ion implanters can also improve the reliability of materials used for medical implants, so they are safer to use in the body.   

Electron beam accelerators
With almost 10 000 machines in operation globally, electron beam accelerators are an industry work horse. They, for example, help make materials more durable in extreme temperatures or resistant against chemicals. Electron beams are also widely used for sterilizing medical products and foods, and to disinfect sewage water. They are used widely in the automotive and aerospace industries, machine construction and medical product manufacturers.

Linear accelerators (linacs) may vary in length, from a couple of meters to a few kilometres. Many of them are used in scientific research. The most widely known are the medical linacs installed at hospitals, which create bursts of X-rays that are guided towards tumour cells to destroy them. There are about 1000 medical linacs operating worldwide.

More than 1200 cyclotrons around the world create proton or deuteron beams for medical uses. They produce radioisotopes that are used for medical imaging to diagnose and subsequently treat cancers. Many cyclotrons are located at hospitals to produce life-saving radiopharmaceuticals containing short-lived radioisotopes for patients.

The more than 70 synchrotrons are the giants among particle accelerators. They are used for scientific research and are best known for helping us understand the fundamental laws of our universe but also for numerous applications. Scientists use synchrotrons to study chemistry, biomedicine, natural and cultural heritage, the environment, and much more.  

Electrostatic accelerators
Electrostatic accelerators, notably tandems accelerators, are less expensive, and scientists use them to investigate material properties, monitor the environment, support biomedical research, study cultural heritage objects and more. With recent boosts in their capacity, experts expect the current 300 machines to grow in numbers in the coming years.

This article was first published in May 2022.

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