9 Amazing Facts about Particle Accelerators and How They Work

What are particle accelerators and how do they work? Let's find out.
Christopher McFadden
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Particle accelerators, sometimes called atom smashers, are some of the most advanced pieces of scientific equipment in the world. But what are they and how do they work?

Here we will briefly explore the technology behind them and look at some interesting facts about these high-tech matter "kablamers." 


What are particle accelerators, and how do they work?

Particle accelerators, as the name suggests, are special pieces of tech used to speed up tiny pieces of matter called particles. But they are a lot more complex and interesting than that.

Such devices effectively use magnetic and electric fields to produce a fast stream of charged particles that are fired at a particular target, depending on the application.

The particles tend to consist of either protons or electrons, but in some special cases, they can be used to fire subatomic particles or even whole atoms like gold, uranium, etc. 

One particular kind of particle accelerator called a circular particle accelerator (like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN) is made up of around six basic components.

1. The particle source - This is where the intended particle beam "ammo" is produced.

2. The beam pipe - This is the structure inside which the particle beam travels. It is usually held in a vacuum and must be as clean as a whistle at all times.

3. Electromagnets - These are used to steer and focus the particles around the beam pipe.

4. Electric fields - At various set intervals around the beam pipe, electric fields are generated in either positive or negative polarities at a given frequency. These accelerate the particle beam as they pass through them.

5. Targets - The confined and accelerated beam of particles are usually aimed at a particle target. This could be a thin piece of metal foil or other particles.

6. Detectors - Special particle detectors are used to record the aftermath of any collisions within the accelerator. They will keep an eye on any resultant particles or radiation that is created during any collision.

What are some interesting facts about particle accelerators?

And so, without further ado, here are some interesting facts about particle accelerators. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Your old CRT TV had a kind of particle accelerator

If you are old enough to remember the days before flat screen LCD and Plasma TVs, you will have, at one point, been the proud owner of your own small particle accelerator. CRT, standing for Cathode Ray Tube, used magnets to accelerate electrons in a vacuum into a screen of phosphor to produce light.

Each little collision produced a lighted spot, or pixel, that when combined, would produce an image.

2. Particle accelerators have many important uses

Particle accelerators are not just used for home entertainment. They have many important applications around the world.

For example, particle accelerators are used in medicine. They are used to help speed up diagnoses for myriad diseases around the word. In industry, they are used for making things like computer chips and shrink wrap.

They are also used for inspecting cargo at border checks as well as stockpile stewardship and material characterization.

3. Particle accelerators are helping us understand the universe around us

One of the most important uses for particle accelerators is in the field of particle physics, aka high-energy physics. Using them, particle physicists are learning about the nature of many fundamental particles and physical laws that govern everything from matter to energy to time and space.

4. The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest particle accelerator

The enormous Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It was first opened for business, well research, in September 2008, and consists of a 27-km long ring of superconducting magnets with acceleration points around its course.

This massive structure is used to fire subatomic particles beams at close to the speed of light into one another to see what happens. The LHC has helped make many amazing breakthroughs in particle physics, including the discovery of the Higgs Boson

5. Particle accelerators come in two main types

Particle accelerators come in a variety of shapes and sizes. But they tend to fall into one of two main categories; linear accelerators and circular ones.

The former move particles in a straight line, hence the name. The latter, like the LHC at CERN or the Tevatron in the U.S., move them around a circular course.

6. Particle accelerators have been used to discover various basic elements

Particle accelerators have been used to make some major discoveries in other fields of science beyond particle physics. For example, early machines, like Lawrence's 60-inch Cyclotron, were used to discover plutonium, neptunium, and many other transuranic elements and isophotes.

For this work, Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan were awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1951.

7. One of the world's longest buildings was purpose-built for a particle accelerator

The Linear Accelerator building at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in San Francisco is one of the longest buildings in the world. The building is around 2 miles (3.2 km) long, and it houses a very powerful linear particle accelerator.

8. The highest ever man-made temperature was recorded inside a particle accelerator

A blistering temperature of around 5.5 trillion degrees Celsius was recorded in 2012 at the Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavey Ion Collider. This not only won them a Guinness World Record but also enabled them to produce a small amount of quark-gluon plasma (a state of matter thought to have dominated the early universe). 

9. Ferrets were once used to clean accelerator parts

Between 1971 and 1999, ferrets were actually used to clean certain parts of the particle accelerator at Fermilab's Meson Laboratory. Since ferrets love to burrow and clamber through tunnels, they were deemed the perfect solution for keeping the hundreds of meters of vacuum piping clear of debris prior to firing particles down them.

Each ferret, like Felicia the Ferret, would pull a rag dipped in solution through the long sections of pipe. Ferrets have since been replaced with specially designed robots. 

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