Why Particle Accelerators?
Particle accelerators are a futuristic technology that has many uses including for science, engineering, medicine and industrial applications. There are about 30,000 accelerators of all sizes in the world. Finding trained people who can understand, operate and engineer such systems is a problem. What is a particle accelerator? It is a circular or straight (linear) tube containing a vacuum in which atomic particles (i.e. electrons, protons or ions) can be accelerated to high speed using electric and/or magnetic fields. Research accelerators can be measured in miles. Many other accelerators are much smaller. What can the particle accelerators be used for? Some applications include:
• Research: Large accelerators are used to probe the structure of matter. These include accelerators at national research laboratories such as Brookhaven National Laboratory (about 25 miles from the Stony Brook campus). We have learned a great deal through the use of accelerators but many questions remain. Accelerators can also be used to study materials and organisms at the micro and nano scale. Particle accelerators are used to simulate space radiation to assure through testing that electronics in space will work.
• Fabricating Computer Chips: Computer chips are made using a technique called “doping”. In it accelerators introduce impurities to silicon and thus give rise to transistor action.
• Medicine: Accelerators are used to produce isotopes used in medical applications such as cancer treatment and heart stress testing. Beams of protons are most effective for cancer treatment. Such beams destroy tumors. They pass thru tissue with little damage to cells but kill cells when they stop.
• Finding Oil: Portable neutron generators assist in the search for oil, gas and even water. Using a method called neutron logging, the strength of reflected gamma rays indicate the type of material that is below ground.
• Sealing Packages: Charged particle beams can cause some chemicals to polymerize. This allows the glue on packaging to instantly dry. This is used for sealing of milk cartons and potato chip bags – an early industrial application of accelerators going back to the 1980’s.
• Food Safety: Electron beams can kill bacteria and parasites. This is done in dozens of countries. Foods so protected include apples, strawberries and spinach.
• Searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction: Muon beams can probe a truck for fissile material. Muons are similar to electrons but 200-fold more massive.
• Applications of accelerators being developed for the future include reducing natural gas wastage, clean coal technology, cleaning up sewage and making nuclear reactors safer.
• Art: An accelerator in the basement of the Louvre Museum in Paris is used to authenticate and study art work.
Applications of particle accelerators are sophisticated and varied. Highly trained people are needed to engineer and operate such systems. The Ernest Courant Traineeship in Accelerator Science and Engineering aims to educate such a talented work force.
More information on particle accelerators and their uses can be found on the Brookhaven National Laboratory (www.bnl.gov) website, the Department of Energy (www.doe.gov) web site, the Accelerators for Society web page and in articles such as “10 Reasons Why You Can’t Live Without Particle Accelerators” by L. Zeldovich (available on the web).