New laser-based particle accelerator – More powerful and much smaller

Particle accelerators are vital in studying the fundamentals of particle physics. Apart from research, accelerators with varying energy outputs are used in several fields, including medical diagnostics, oncological purposes, and measurement of isotopes, to name a few.

Typical particle accelerator uses electromagnetic or electrostatic fields to propel electrons to very high speeds and high energies and contains them in well-defined beams. The largest particle accelerator that is currently in use is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC, an electromagnetic collider accelerator, accelerates two electron beams to the very high energy of 6.5 TeV and collides them head-on. LHC is used in the research for Higgs Boson, commonly called the God Particle.

LHC Image Courtsey: CERN
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It is challenging, as to generate more energetic electrons, a much larger accelerator is required. For example, the LHC’s particle accelerator is 17 miles long. What if there is a way to downsize the accelerator and still produce high energy electrons?

Researchers at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) has outlined a method using high-intensity Laser light, that can accelerate electrons to high energies in very short distances. As per the researcher’s estimate, this would be 10,000 times smaller than a typical particle accelerator to generate similar intensity.

How does it work?

The theoretical particle accelerator, also known as Laser Wakefield Accelerators (LWFA), outlined by the researchers at LLE, sculpts the laser light instead of focusing all the light at one spot. The researchers developed an innovative optical setup that resembles a circular amphitheater with wavelength sized steps. When a high-intensity light is focussed using this optical setup, it creates a time delay between the concentric rings of light. The researchers can focus each ring of light at a different distance from the source, creating a high-intensity sculpted light pulse instead of a single spot.

Illustration depicting the method outline by LLE researchers to shape intense laser light in a way that accelerates electrons to record energies in very short distances. | Image: H. Palmer and K. Palmisano

When this sculpted light pulse enters the plasma, it creates a wake similar to a wake behind a motorboat. The wake propagates at the speed of light, and electrons accelerate as they ride the wake, much like skiers riding a boat’s wake. This way, electrons can accelerate to faster than light speeds and continually accelerate.

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The concept of Laser Wakefield Accelerators is not new and is nearly 40 years old. Previous versions used unstructured light pulses that propagated much slower than the speed of light, causing electrons to outrun the wake. The invention of Chirped-Pulse Amplification (CPA) in 2018, by a technique developed by Nobel Laureates, Donna Strickland, and Gerard Mourou, advanced this concept.

While the research is theoretical, the LLE is working on plans to construct the highest-powered laser in the world, named EP-OPAL, to generate the extremely high powered sculpted light pulses. The LWFA would be a game-changer as this could allow electrons to be accelerated to speeds beyond what is possible today with the current technologies.

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Source: Phys.org

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