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Teilchenbeschleuniger auf Mikrochip © SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Particle Accelerator on a Microchip

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fund the development of a particle accelerator on a microchip atDESY and the University of Hamburg

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded 13.5 million US dollars (12.6 million euros) to promote the development of a particle accelerator on a microchip. DESY and the University of Hamburg are among the partners involved in this international project, headed by Robert Byer of Stanford University (USA) and Peter Hommelhoff of the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. Within five years, they hope to produce a working prototype of an “accelerator-on-a-chip”.

From Large to Small

For decades, particle accelerators have been an indispensable tool in countless areas of research – from fundamental research in physics to examining the structure of biomolecules in order to develop new drugs. Accelerator-based research has repeatedly been awarded Nobel prizes. Until now, the necessary facilities have been very large and costly. Scientists and engineers are trying out a range of different approaches to build more compact and less expensive particle accelerators. For the time being, the big facilities will remain indispensable for many purposes, however there are some applications in which efficient miniature electron accelerators can provide completely new insights.

Wide Range of Different Applications

The aim of the project is to develop a new type of small, inexpensive particle accelerator for a wide range of different users. Apart from using the fast electrons themselves, they could also be used to produce high-intensity X-rays. “This prototype could set the stage for a new generation of ‘tabletop’ accelerators, with unanticipated discoveries in biology and materials science and potential applications in security scanning, medical therapy and X-ray imaging,” explains Byer.

The Power of Light

The project is based on advances in nano-photonics, the art of creating and using nano structures to generate and manipulate different kinds of light. A laser using visible or infrared light is used to accelerate the electrically charged elementary particles, rather than the radio-frequency (RF) waves currently used. The wavelength of this radiation is some ten to one hundred thousand times shorter than that of the radio waves, meaning that steeper accelerator gradients can be achieved than those using RF technology.

“The advantage is that everything is up to fifty times smaller,” explains Franz Kärtner who is a Leading Scientist at DESY, as well as a professor at the University of Hamburg and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, and a member of Hamburg’s Centre for Ultrafast Imaging (CUI), and who heads a similar project in Hamburg, funded by the European Research Council.

International Project

DESY will bring its vast knowhow as an internationally leader in laser technology to the project, which has already paid off in other collaborations involving the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. There, Hommelhoff’s group showed that for slow electrons a micro-structured accelerator module is able to achieve steeper acceleration gradients than RF technology. Byer’s group had demonstrated independently the same effect for fast, so-called relativistic electrons.

Apart from DESY, the Universities of Stanford, Erlangen-Nürnberg and Hamburg, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the US, the Swiss Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), the Purdue University, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and the Technical University of Darmstadt are also involved in the project, as well as the US company Tech-X.

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