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More background on accelerators

The first particle accelerators were developed in the 1920s. They were quickly at the forefront of discoveries in nuclear physics and chemistry. The concept and technology of accelerators developed so rapidly that by the end of the 1930s several types had been invented: the Van de Graaf generator, the linear accelerator (also known as the linac), the betatron and the cyclotron. Today, over 30,000 accelerators are used worldwide. They exist in a multitude of designs:

  • linear or circular,
  • small enough to sit on a table or tens of kilometres long, and
  • operated in continuous or pulsed modes.

They have the power to accelerate particles to final energies that span an enormous range: from a few electronvolts (eV) to nearly one teraelectronvolt (1,000 billion eV). They can speed up electrons, protons or any other charged particles to be used in the production of X-rays, neutrons and radioisotopes.

Scientists recognized early on the devices’ great potential for industrial and medical applications. Today, more than 97 per cent of all particle accelerators in service are used for commercial applications.

Accelerators find use in a wide array of applications. The most common include:

  • Processing semiconductors
  • Vulcanizing rubber and modifying polymer properties
  • Medical imaging and cancer treatment
  • Sterilization of medical equipment and food products
  • Cleaning industrial flue gases (for instance, combustion exhaust gas produced at power plants) and purifying water
  • Mineral and oil prospecting
  • Cargo screening
  • Radioisotope production
  • Radiocarbon and other radiometric dating

Also the computer showing this information would have required the use of an accelerator to make it.

Only a few hundred accelerators are dedicated purely for scientific research, although the knowledge and technological developments gained from research accelerators often drive the development of new applications. The IAEA deals with the application of these research accelerators. It has created a global database of and resource for the world’s research accelerators, the Accelerator Knowledge Portal.

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