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Texas Physicists Create Tabletop Particle Accelerator

Soulskill posted about 10 months ago | from the not-quite-everything-is-bigger-in-texas dept.

Science 89

An anonymous reader sends this quote from a University of Texas news release: "Physicists at The University of Texas at Austin have built a tabletop particle accelerator that can generate energies and speeds previously reached only by major facilities that are hundreds of meters long and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build (abstract). 'We have accelerated about half a billion electrons to 2 gigaelectronvolts over a distance of about 1 inch,' said Mike Downer, professor of physics in the College of Natural Sciences. 'Until now that degree of energy and focus has required a conventional accelerator that stretches more than the length of two football fields. It’s a downsizing of a factor of approximately 10,000.' ... Downer said that the electrons from the current 2 GeV accelerator can be converted into “hard” X-rays as bright as those from large-scale facilities. He believes that with further refinement they could even drive an X-ray free electron laser, the brightest X-ray source currently available to science. A tabletop X-ray laser would be transformative for chemists and biologists, who could use the bright X-rays to study the molecular basis of matter and life with atomic precision, and femtosecond time resolution, without traveling to a large national facility."

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89 comments

who ya gonna call? (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44073725)

now to make it back pack sized!

Re:who ya gonna call? (1)

VanessaE (970834) | about 10 months ago | (#44075457)

Sure, as soon as it shoots protons or collides positrons.

(depending on which part of the movie you want to consider)

Size is deceptive... (4, Informative)

Man On Pink Corner (1089867) | about 10 months ago | (#44073741)

Area needed for experimental appratus: One 6' folding table from Office Depot

Equipment needed: One petawatt-class laser, occupying a large portion of the physics building

Yeah, right... (5, Funny)

Frosty Piss (770223) | about 10 months ago | (#44073843)

I don't believe this story at all.

Now, if the summary had said something about some high school kid doing it for the science fair for under $200, that I can believe.

Re:Size is deceptive... (4, Informative)

MozeeToby (1163751) | about 10 months ago | (#44073965)

Looking into it:

The petawatt laser is installed on a 10m long optics table, and is controlled by 1 19" server rack. Granted, that's a Big Freakin Laser (tm), but hardly half the physics building, and I'm not sure, but if I understand their explanations correctly making the accelerator longer needn't necessarily require higher power from the laser. Besides, this is the engineering phase, we'll see in 10 years or so if it's actually useful and interesting from a useful science perspective. As it stands, there are facilities that can produce X-rays at these power levels, this system just seems to be designed to put one in every major college campus, rather than having 2 or 3 in the nation.

Re:Size is deceptive... (5, Informative)

drdread66 (1063396) | about 10 months ago | (#44074719)

I graduated from UT with a PhD in physics, and Mike Downer was a prof while I was there. He does "femtosecond physics" ie things you can do with extremely short pulses of laser light. Pretty cool stuf, actually. Anyway, a petawatt laser (10^15 W) fired in a femtosecond (10^-15 s) has a total energy of ~1 J per pulse...they're really not giant gizmos.

Message: the lasers in question aren't petawatt CW, but pulsed.

Re:Size is deceptive... (1)

treeves (963993) | about 10 months ago | (#44076049)

Petawatt CW...that would be fairly big now. Make California brown out for a day or two.

Re:Size is deceptive... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44076577)

Petawatt CW...that would be fairly big now. Make California brown out for a day or two.

How could they tell?

Re:Size is deceptive... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44080065)

I graduated from UT with a PhD in physics, and Mike Downer was a prof while I was there. He does "femtosecond physics" ie things you can do with extremely short pulses of laser light. Pretty cool stuf, actually. Anyway, a petawatt laser (10^15 W) fired in a femtosecond (10^-15 s) has a total energy of ~1 J per pulse...they're really not giant gizmos.

Message: the lasers in question aren't petawatt CW, but pulsed.

Oh there you go trying to ruin our day with little details like "facts". As any Faux News viewer can tell you, it's much easier to be told what to think and not have to bother your self with these pesky little so called "facts".

Re:Size is deceptive... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44075633)

That's approximately 30 feet long. Pretty big.

Re:Size is deceptive... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44076239)

WARNING: Do not look into petawatt laser with remaining eye

Re: Size is deceptive... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44076867)

More like do not look into petawatt last with remaining face.

Re:Size is deceptive... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44078291)

> Big Freakin Laser (tm)

We're gonna need a bigger shark

God news (1, Troll)

zero.kalvin (1231372) | about 10 months ago | (#44073743)

A tabletop X-ray laser would be transformative for chemists and biologists, who could use the bright X-rays to study the molecular basis of matter and life with atomic precision, and femtosecond time resolution, without traveling to a large national facility."

And be labeled a terrorist as well!

Re:God news (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074093)

why would they bother when they can do more damage with the petawatt laser?

Re:God news (1)

distilate (1037896) | about 10 months ago | (#44074651)

why would they bother when they can do more damage with the petawatt laser?

Because to use a pentawatt laser would require a large tame shark

Re:God news (1)

PopeRatzo (965947) | about 10 months ago | (#44075999)

And be labeled a terrorist as well!

If you outlaw petawatt lasers, then only outlaws will have petawatt lasers.

This just in (1)

MickLinux (579158) | about 10 months ago | (#44076177)

Two men were arrested in New York, on charges of attempted terrorism, for trying to get Jewish organizations to pay for an xray that would be mounted in a truck, aimed at Muslims, and used to make them sick or kill them.

The Jewish organizations turned them down, and contacted the FBI.

Unfortunately, there may be those who actually NEED to be charged with terrorism when dealing with Xrays like this.

Paging Dr. Freeman (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44073747)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXceYTu-UGQ

Wow... (0)

msauve (701917) | about 10 months ago | (#44073787)

They built a tabletop CRT?

Re:Wow... (4, Informative)

semi-extrinsic (1997002) | about 10 months ago | (#44074029)

Well, a CRT accelerates electrons up to around 30 000 eV. This gets them up to 2 000 000 000 eV in roughly the same size, so I'd say it's a little more complicated than that.

Re:Wow... (-1)

msauve (701917) | about 10 months ago | (#44074325)

I'd hope that after 115 years, they'd be able to do better. But, an accelerator is an accelerator, which was what was claimed. If they said they had duplicated Fermilab on a desktop, that's different. How much real utility is offered by a 2 BeV desktop unit which differentiates it from a larger one? Is there any real value, other than "we did this?"

If you Google "2 BeV accelerator," the first relevant hit is a scanned typewritten document [slashdot.org] from CERN.

Re:Wow... (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44076009)

If you Google "2 BeV accelerator," the first relevant hit is a scanned typewritten document [slashdot.org] from CERN.

Maybe because "BeV" is really antiquated and not too long after accelerators reached that energy level, GeV became standardized.

As far as use, there are some hard limits on current accelerator technology that requires them to be scaled up to make large gains in energy. The hope is that work like this will continue to go to higher energy levels and eventually allow for surpassing the highest energy accelerators without having to dig a large hole. Although that will be potentially quite difficult, as it is not as simple as just make a longer version of the new tech to increase the energy, so to some degree, the total energy they get is a lot more relevant than the energy per distance.

Re:Wow... (1)

jamiesan (715069) | about 10 months ago | (#44074425)

Yeah... I think that would definitely be bad for your eyes if you watch too much.

Re:Wow... (1)

semi-extrinsic (1997002) | about 10 months ago | (#44109489)

Eyes? A common CRT emits measurable levels of soft X-rays (shielded from you by the glass in the monitor). This would emit significant amounts of hard X-rays, not just bad for your eyes.

Beware Kent (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44073789)

Think of all of the popcorn a Beowulf cluster of these could pop whilst emulating the Most High.

next step... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44073835)

...is to shrink it down small enough to fit on a backpack, and use it to capture ghosts.
(don't cross the streams, though)

But... (0)

elashish14 (1302231) | about 10 months ago | (#44073853)

But can it create black holes which can engulf Earth?

Re:But... (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 10 months ago | (#44074071)

Yes, much like a CRT monitor, this and all other particle accelerators have the ability to generate mass.

Re:But... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074111)

I realise (I think) you're being facetious, but there's a reason why particle physicists measure mass in eV/c^2.

Remember the number of these xrays is fairly small (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44073923)

Look at the article; the energy of the xrays is large, but there are a comparatively small number of them. It isn't a death ray.
(Now, the petawatt laser it needs as input may be more useful as a weapon, if the pulse is long enough. Energy is
power * time and if the time is femtoseconds, the energy is a yawn.

3D Printer Version (1)

ahabswhale (1189519) | about 10 months ago | (#44073941)

I won't be impressed until I can crank one out with my makerbot. I'd place it right next to my 3D printed M16.

Re:3D Printer Version (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074077)

we won't be impressed until you miniaturize it into some goo-gah accessory that mounts ON your M16 with a molded hand grip and some little windage adjustment knobs.

Re:3D Printer Version (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | about 10 months ago | (#44074119)

I won't be satisfied until my makerbot can print an M16 with a free electron laser inside.

I'm told that I'm not an easy person to shop for.

Not new (4, Informative)

Cyberax (705495) | about 10 months ago | (#44073955)

We already have had fairly cheap "tabletop" (or small car-sized) accelerators for a long, long time. Accelerating electrons to 2GeV is not terribly complicated.

However, accelerating a LARGE number of electrons is complicated. Accelerating a large number of ions is even more so. That's why LHC is necessary - you can't hope get enough luminosity with small tools, even if you can reach the same energies.

Re:Not new (2)

TheCarp (96830) | about 10 months ago | (#44074765)

Heh depending on your definitions my parents bought one for me when I was in 7th grade. Ordered it right out of a catalog. The company still sells them: http://www.scientificsonline.com/motor-driven-van-de-graff.html [scientificsonline.com]

Price has gone up, a bit, and the look redesigned, but, still is what it is:

Amusing bit from wikipedia:

One of Van de Graaff's accelerators used two charged domes of sufficient size that each of the domes had laboratories inside - one to provide the source of the accelerated beam, and the other to analyze the actual experiment. The power for the equipment inside the domes came from generators that ran off the belt, and several sessions came to a rather gruesome end when a pigeon would try to fly between the two domes, causing them to discharge. (The accelerator was set up in an airplane hangar.)[5]

The newer designs seem more...enclosed...

(off topic) Re:Not new (1)

TheCarp (96830) | about 10 months ago | (#44074867)

off topic P.S. Being curious myself about how one might create an electron beam from the Van de Graaff, I consulted google and clicked on the first relevant looking link....

http://www.intelligentdesigntheory.info/electron-beam-van-de-graff-generator.html [intelligen...heory.info]

As a result of unconventional thinking about intelligent design, I coupled thermionic emission with a Van de Graff generator in a vacuum tube for electron beam high voltage alternative energy sources to produce electricity that was rejected by the scientific community.

The links from there are absolutely rich with incoherent babble... really good looking diagram photo. I like that all these crackpot inventions include a random magnet. You know its the real deal if it has magnets.

Re:(off topic) Re:Not new (1)

Man On Pink Corner (1089867) | about 10 months ago | (#44075713)

That's some pretty impressive kookery, but actually a small VDG can be used to accelerate electrons (and presumably protons as well in the form of H+ ions). See the chapter in C.L. Stong's anthology of Scientific American's The Amateur Scientist columns, beginning on page 344. There are a few copies on Amazon, and there is also a .PDF floating around, along with the 'official' CD-ROM edition which is a pile of proprietary crap.

I keep meaning to try this, if I ever get the mechanical reliability of my own VDG up to par. Right now it will run for about a minute at most before something breaks.

Re:(off topic) Re:Not new (1)

TheCarp (96830) | about 10 months ago | (#44076179)

The top of mine broke, but its quite fixable. The way it was made the top "brush" (twisted stranded wire) is soldered to a thicker wire in an "A" shape. It had two holes in the top end of the shaft, one of them cracked out. At this point the belt is a good 20 years old, but, last time I rigged it up to work for a few minutes it gives some sparks.

H+ ions eh? Just so happens I was looking at a water torch video recently (sadly, nearly everyone working on such things seems to be a crackpot who is trying to fit an oxyhydrogen generator to his car) and wondering if there was any other silly excuse I could use to set up a rig to make some hydrogen.

Course when you really get down to it, if you are going to go through that much trouble to make a table top accelerator, it seems like it would be easier to skip the electrical energy to mechanical energy and mechanical energy to electrostatic potential steps. Seems like charging a capacitor and using some sort of cathode/annode setup..... and that is how the VDG ended up in the museum :)

Though, still pretty cool. It may be one of the cheaper and safer ways to get some of the high voltages, high voltage diodes and capacitors are not exactly the cheapest components to build up ladders of.

The faint throbbing that returned to my elbow once in a while for several years after I got the bright idea to put a plastic report cover on the wall next to the VDG and let it run, discharging a stream of small sparks at the plastic surface. It lit up a bright, thick spark, close to 4" to my finger, and traveled right down to the elbow.

But as strong as it can be, at least you only have to deal with as much energy as you store. Not quite dealing with line current.

Re:(off topic) Re:Not new (1)

Man On Pink Corner (1089867) | about 10 months ago | (#44076269)

Course when you really get down to it, if you are going to go through that much trouble to make a table top accelerator, it seems like it would be easier to skip the electrical energy to mechanical energy and mechanical energy to electrostatic potential steps. Seems like charging a capacitor and using some sort of cathode/annode setup..... and that is how the VDG ended up in the museum :)

Agreed, a Cockroft-Walton multiplier should be pretty easy to construct these days with HV components available on eBay. It now occurs to me that it might make sense to ditch the belt and motor in my VDG altogether, and just build a CW multiplier into the acrylic column. Hmm.

Re:(off topic) Re:Not new (1)

DMUTPeregrine (612791) | about 10 months ago | (#44081195)

http://rtftechnologies.org/physics/linac.htm is one of several examples of hobbyist-built particle accelerators. CW generators are pretty easy to build, the biggest issue tends to be corona suppression.

Re:Not new (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44076057)

Van de Graff generators and other simple voltage multiplying circuits were once used as particle accelerators. But they pretty much top out at the 5-10 MeV range due to issues of size and break down (the high end ones already under a special atmosphere, like SF6, to prevent breakdown as much as possible). Other techniques, even ones possible to build by high school students, can exceed that by orders of magnitudes.

Re:Not new (2)

joe_frisch (1366229) | about 10 months ago | (#44074881)

You are right. In addition for electron machines (like this one) the electrons need to be in a very small phase space to be useful for modern high brightness X-ray facilities.
(small volume, small divergence, short pulse, low energy spread - 6 dimensional phase space, with good shot to shot stability.

Laser accelerators are a very interesting technology and have made huge advances in the last decade, but so far cannot replace the large machines. With continued research they may be able to do so in the future, but there is not a clear path to this at the moment.

Re:Not new (1)

LordVader717 (888547) | about 10 months ago | (#44078021)

Anything capable of accelerating electrons to 2 GeV isn't even remotely tabletop or car-sized.

The energy limits for circular accelerators are set by the strength of the magnets and diameter of the ring. Even if you only have a small number of particles you're limited by the geometry of the machine.

The Luminosity is limited by how many particles you can keep on track. This becomes *harder* the bigger your accelerator. In other words, the LHC has a high luminosity *despite* it's large size, not because of it.

Re:Not new (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 10 months ago | (#44078111)

The problem is that you _need_ large size to store a large number of particles, they are not moving as a constant stream but in batches and you need a certain distance between them. I think a 1GeV electron cyclotron was about 5 meters in size - not exactly a field-size, but still big.

Re:Not new (1)

LordVader717 (888547) | about 10 months ago | (#44084767)

A cyclotron is a continuous accelerator that doesn't need storage capacity. That's also one advantage of the plasma accelerator in the article, it doesn't need a storage ring.
Anyway, the point is there are no conventional "compact high-energy low-luminosity" accelerators. It's inevitably a trade-off between size and energy. Which is why this new technology is so interesting, as it can reach the energy levels with a much smaller system.

BTW, do you have a source? A 5m 1 GeV electron accelerator sounds a bit far-fetched to me.

Not General Purpose (1)

Lawrence_Bird (67278) | about 10 months ago | (#44073979)

this technique, IIRC, only applies to acceleration of electrons. The primary use, as the article states, will be as a light source for bio/chem/materials research such as takes place in NSLS at Brookhaven. Beam time is always over subscribed so I'm sure there will be demand for something like this though it would be nice to have a better idea of the costs - I'm not sure this means every lab gets one or there might be one shared by an entire university or research center.

Excellent! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44073985)

Now my plan will finally come to fruition.

1. Buy nuclear accelerator
2. Create table-top doomsday device combining particle accelerator enhanced with a travesty generator in the kitchen
3. ???
4. Profit!!

I'll be rich in no time! Wait, wait . . . what if I could mount them on the heads of sharks? Ha ha ha ha! That is soooo sweet. I'll be far more powerful than those fools wasting their time with lasers. Lasers are for lusers. Bwa hahahaha!

Maybe I'll blow up the moon [youtube.com] as a demonstration. Of course that might have the side effect of world peace [www.imao.us]. I'll have to use a different demonstration.

But still, I'll be rich!!!

Re:Excellent! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074113)

My wife is a travesty generator in the kitchen.

I didn't listen to my coworker who told me "never marry a woman if she can't make a decent cream gravy".

Re:Excellent! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074259)

She's probably pretty [youtube.com], isn't she?

Re:Excellent! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074333)

Yup. ;)

Re:Excellent! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074561)

LOL ;)

Well then, you lucky man, there is probably only one thing to be done then, if you have the stones (and think you can avoid any possible drawbacks).

If you can cook at all, take a weekend cooking class with her sometime. It'll be a mutual activity you can share, you'll get time to spend with her, you might pick up something you can serve her on special occasions for breakfast in bed (for which you'll have the gratitude of a pretty woman), and her cream gravy might improve without you being the one that has to correct her. That could be a win : win : win. Maybe. LOL

Good luck!

Re:Excellent! (1)

PopeRatzo (965947) | about 10 months ago | (#44075991)

Yup. ;)

Like my dad told me when I was a young rake, "That's why God made restaurants".

You can learn to cook, but you can't learn away ugly.

transformative (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074053)

A tabletop X-ray laser would be transformative for chemists and biologists

Yeah, transforms them from living human beings to a pile of ash :-)

If you worried about the LHC... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074059)

If they can do this with an inch, imagine what one a mile wide could do. Sometimes I worry about how we can't find any evidence of other intelligent life in the universe but we see plenty of black holes...

Re:If you worried about the LHC... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074329)

If they can do this with an inch, imagine what one a mile wide could do. Sometimes I worry about how we can't find any evidence of other intelligent life in the universe but we see plenty of black holes...

A mile wide or a mile long? Or both?

Re:If you worried about the LHC... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074859)

Well clearly, if all they left behind were black holes, they weren't intelligent enough.

Re:If you worried about the LHC... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44076045)

If they can do this with an inch, imagine what one a mile wide could do.

Actually, not much. At the moment, this kind of accelerator technology scales horribly. Even though higher and higher energies have been reached, they have been over very short distances. It is not like the more traditional versions where you could always just build a bigger one and get more energy.

Re: If you worried about the LHC... (1)

FunkyLich (2533348) | about 10 months ago | (#44077363)

To my understanding the detection of blackholes is vastly, imensely, easier than detection of intelligent life. It is like the ability to detect a nuclear explosion 50km away, vs a complicated formation of candles on a birthday cake at the same distance.

sales pitch (1, Insightful)

slew (2918) | about 10 months ago | (#44074237)

“I don’t think a major breakthrough is required to get there,” he said. “If we can just keep the funding in place for the next few years, all of this is going to happen. Companies are now selling petawatt lasers commercially, and as we get better at doing this, companies will come into being to make 10 GeV accelerator modules. Then the end users, the chemists and biologists, will come in, and that will lead to more innovations and discoveries.”

1. Start with 1GeV research laser plasma accelerator
2. Demo 2GeV accelerator tied to one of the most powerful petawatt lasers in the world
3. Promise 10GeV if funding continues for next few years...
4. ???
5. Profit!

Some details missing... (4, Informative)

the gnat (153162) | about 10 months ago | (#44074431)

The press release makes some very grand-sounding claims about replacing synchrotrons and free-electron lasers. I'm not an expert in the accelerator field but I've used these systems, and I have some idea of what the actual output needs to be in order to be useful for biologists. Specifically, it's not just the electron energies that matter, but the photon flux per unit of area. The figures for modern synchrotrons are on the order of 10^11 - 10^13 with a spot size of 100 microns or less - the very best will focus down to just a few microns. From what I can understand of the paper, they're talking about several orders of magnitude fewer photons over much larger areas. (If someone who understands this stuff better can confirm whether or not I'm reading it correctly, I'd be grateful.) The only hard free-electron laser in the US, the LCLS at Stanford, is orders of magnitude brighter than synchrotrons, and compressed into pulses on the order of tens of femtoseconds long.

It would be great if someone could build a high-intensity hard X-ray source at every big research university. But it's not the first time such claims have been made; there is (or was) a company called Lyncean that tried to build a tabletop synchrotron in the previous decade, and made similar predictions about its utility for biology. Their technology worked perfectly well from a theoretical standpoint - but it was several orders of magnitude too weak to be competitive with existing synchrotron beamlines, and too expensive to be competitive with existing laboratory X-ray sources.

(Of course this is pretty much standard stuff from university PR departments, which would always like you to believe that they're on the brink of curing caner or revolutionizing some widely used method. The actual Nature Communications article is much more sober.)

Re:Some details missing... (1)

LordVader717 (888547) | about 10 months ago | (#44087681)

The news is primarily about their record electron beam energy.

The experiment in the paper does produce X-rays, but these come naturally from the electrons oscillating in the plasma, a "plasma wiggler". When they mention it in the news article they seem to be talking about using the electron beam in a conventional wiggler, which should produce more photons. It wasn't part of the experiment though.

FINALLY! - I can trade... (1)

ph4cr (775696) | about 10 months ago | (#44074697)

my pop bottles and beer cans for Desk Top SUPER POWERS! ...and folks said desk tops were dead! ...slow news day.

Good news everyone! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44074839)

I've grafted a particle accelerator to a shark!

Without metric... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44076871)

... it's not science.

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