Science Made Simple: What Are Particle Accelerators?

by Manuel Costa
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Particle accelerators

Particle accelerators are remarkable devices used to propel charged particles, such as protons, atomic nuclei, and electrons, to high speeds, enabling scientists to investigate their collisions and delve into the mysteries of quantum physics. These powerful machines, which can be either linear or circular in design, play a crucial role in unraveling the complexities of particle interactions. Supported by the Department of Energy Office of Science, numerous particle accelerators across the nation contribute to groundbreaking research in particle acceleration and radiation generation.

At their core, particle accelerators serve to accelerate and collide the fundamental particles that constitute all matter in the universe. By studying these particles and the forces that govern them, scientists gain profound insights into their nature.

Essentially, particle accelerators hasten the motion of charged particles, including protons, atomic nuclei, and the electrons orbiting atomic nuclei. In certain cases, these particles approach speeds close to that of light.

Once the particles are accelerated, they are made to collide either with each other or with a target. These collisions yield a range of outcomes, such as the release of energy, nuclear reactions, particle scattering, and the creation of additional particles like neutrons. Through these processes, scientists are able to investigate the intricate bonds holding atoms, atomic nuclei, and nucleons together, as well as explore the realm of particles, including enigmatic entities like the Higgs boson.

The behavior of these particles and the underlying forces governing them fall within the purview of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Moreover, particle accelerators provide valuable insights into the realm of quantum physics, which dictates the behavior of the microscopic world. In the quantum realm, classical Newtonian physics, which we encounter in our everyday lives, proves inadequate in explaining the intricacies of particle interactions.

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider’s STAR detector, depicted in the image, meticulously tracks the trajectories of numerous particles generated from the collisions of heavy ions like gold. This enables scientists to investigate the quark-gluon plasma and unravel the behavior of matter at high energy densities. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Now, how do these machines actually accelerate particles? The particles are introduced into a vacuum-sealed pipe called a “beamline” that maintains extremely low air pressure to ensure a particle-disturbance-free environment during their acceleration.

The injected particles are referred to as a “beam” and are guided and focused by a series of electromagnets. In a linear accelerator or LINAC, the particles are propelled straight towards a stationary target. On the other hand, in a circular accelerator, the particles travel in a circular path, continuously gaining speed. While circular accelerators occupy less overall space compared to LINACs, they tend to be more intricate to construct and operate. Nevertheless, circular accelerators offer numerous collision opportunities due to the particles’ circular trajectory.

The collisions occur either between particles or between particles and a target within a device known as a particle detector. This sophisticated instrument measures properties such as the particles’ speed, mass, and charge, allowing scientists to deduce the types of particles produced from a collision.

Fast Facts:
For more information on how particle accelerators function, refer to the Department of Energy’s resource “How Particle Accelerators Work.”
The main injector at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory accelerates protons to an astounding 99.997 percent of the speed of light.
Spanning over 5 miles in diameter, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN stands as the largest particle accelerator worldwide.
Discover the Contributions to Particle Accelerators by the DOE Office of Science.

The Department of Energy Office of Science actively supports particle accelerators and research employing these devices, primarily through its High Energy Physics and Nuclear Physics programs. These programs allocate funding to particle accelerators throughout the country. Notably, the Argonne Tandem Linac Acceler

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Particle accelerators

What are particle accelerators and what is their purpose?

Particle accelerators are powerful machines designed to accelerate charged particles, such as protons and electrons, to high speeds. Their purpose is to study the collisions of these particles, gaining insights into quantum physics and understanding fundamental particles and forces.

How do particle accelerators work?

Particle accelerators work by injecting particles into a vacuum-sealed pipe called a “beamline.” Electromagnets then steer and focus the particle beam. In linear accelerators, particles are accelerated straight towards a fixed target, while circular accelerators propel particles in a circular path, continuously increasing their speed.

What do particle collisions in accelerators reveal?

Particle collisions in accelerators can release energy, trigger nuclear reactions, scatter particles, and produce new particles. By studying these collisions, scientists can investigate the structure of atoms, atomic nuclei, and nucleons, as well as explore the realm of particles described by the Standard Model of Particle Physics.

How do particle accelerators contribute to our understanding of quantum physics?

Particle accelerators provide valuable insights into quantum physics, which governs the behavior of the microscopic world. They allow scientists to study particle interactions at incredibly small scales, where classical Newtonian physics falls short. By delving into quantum phenomena, researchers deepen our understanding of fundamental particles and their interactions.

What is the role of the Department of Energy Office of Science in particle accelerators?

The Department of Energy Office of Science plays a crucial role in supporting particle accelerators and research related to these devices. Through programs like High Energy Physics and Nuclear Physics, they fund various particle accelerators across the country, enabling advancements in particle acceleration and radiation generation research.

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