Desktop Sized Atom Smasher Demonstrated

From the “E.O. Lawrence would be jealous department”  and the University of Texas Austin comes this bit of interesting news (h/t to “View From the Solent”). Full disclosure, I made a cyclotron myself and went to the National Science Fair with it in 1975. It was about the size of desk, and I powered its magnet system with my dad’s DC welder. I got about 2 MeV out of it. – Anthony

Particle Accelerator That Can Fit on a Tabletop Opens New Chapter for Science Research

AUSTIN, Texas — laser plasma acceleratorPhysicists 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.

“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.”

The results, which were published this week in Nature Communications, mark a major milestone in the advance toward the day when multi-gigaelectronvolt (GeV) laser plasma accelerators are standard equipment in research laboratories around the world.

Downer said he expects 10 GeV accelerators of a few inches in length to be developed within the next few years, and he believes 20 GeV accelerators of similar size could be developed within a decade.

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.

“The X-rays we’ll be able to produce are of femtosecond duration, which is the time scale on which molecules vibrate and the fastest chemical reactions take place,” said Downer. “They will have the energy and brightness to enable us to see, for example, the atomic structure of single protein molecules in a living sample.”

To generate the energetic electrons capable of producing these X-rays, Downer and his colleagues employed an acceleration method known as laser-plasma acceleration. It involves firing a brief but intensely powerful laser pulse into a puff of gas.

“To a layman it looks like low technology,” said Downer. “All you do is make a little puff of gas with the right density and profile. The laser pulse comes in. It ionizes that gas and makes the plasma, but it also imprints structure in it. It separates electrons from the ion background and creates these enormous internal space-charge fields. Then the charged particles emerge right out of the plasma, get trapped in those fields, which are racing along at nearly the speed of light with that laser pulse, and accelerate in them.”

laser plasma accelerator - vacuum chamber interior

The interior of the vacuum chamber in which the acceleration occurs. The laser beam arrives from the right. The gas cell, within which the acceleration of electrons occurs, is in the center of the chamber. The actual acceleration occurs over a distance of about an inch.

Downer compared it to what would happen if you threw a motorboat into a lake with its engines churning. The boat (the laser) makes a splash, then creates a wave as it moves through the lake at high speed. During that initial splash some droplets (charged particles) break off, get caught up in the wave and accelerate by surfing on it.

“At the other end of the lake they get thrown off into the environment at incredibly high speeds,” said Downer. “That’s our 2 GeV electron beam.”

Former UT Austin physicist Toshiki Tajima and the late UCLA physicist John Dawson conceived the idea of laser-plasma acceleration in the late 1970s. Scientists have been experimenting with this concept since the early 1990s, but they’ve been limited by the power of their lasers. As a result the field had been stuck at a maximum energy of about 1 GeV for years.

Downer and his colleagues were able to use the Texas Petawatt Laser, one of the most powerful lasers in the world, to push past this barrier. In particular the petawatt laser enabled them to use gases that are much less dense than those used in previous experiments.

“At a lower density, that laser pulse can travel faster through the gas,” said Downer. “But with the earlier generations of lasers, when the density got too low, there wasn’t enough of a splash to inject electrons into the accelerator, so you got nothing out. This is where the petawatt laser comes in. When it enters low density plasma, it can make a bigger splash.”

Downer said that now that he and his team have demonstrated the workability of the 2 GeV accelerator, it should be only a matter of time until 10 GeV accelerators are built. That threshold is significant because 10 GeV devices would be able to do the X-ray analyses that biologists and chemists want.

“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.”

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56 thoughts on “Desktop Sized Atom Smasher Demonstrated

  1. Back in 1995 I was a judge for a Canadian, plus some US and Porto Rican, High School science projects. The winner, by a length, was a spotty 18 year old kid who build a cyclotron out of stuff he got from a recycling yard. That was about the size of a dining room table.

  2. The Texax laser takes up about 1,500 sq. ft. in a clean room. At over 30 feet, it’d be hard to put that on most “desktops”. However, even with the room-size laser — wow!

    The CERN contraption hits around 14 TeV. Is it feasible to construct these in parallel similar to what’s done in computer systems? And they could do it cheaper than the 5+ billion $US. Even it you’d have to take over an entire building at CalTech…

  3. The next big high energy physics project is the International Linear Collider ILC. Now I wonder whether this new desk-top electron pulse source will leap-frog the currently planned machine.

    For those who have been made cynical by climate science, other fields of science remain generally uncorrupted. And they do take up-front money.

  4. Off Topic:
    I’m looking for papers on the topic of plasma recombination. Specifically, I’m looking for papers covering the spectrum of radiation that occurs during plasma recombination, and papers covering plasma recombination occuring in space.

    Thanks in in advance for any help provided.

  5. Could this have implications for
    a) medical applications – proton beam therapy for tumors?
    b) Focus Fusion research?
    Anyone know about it?

  6. What are they using for shielding? Last time I was in even a megavolt facility the walls were many feet of concrete. The large free-electron laser facility near my house is underground for the same reason. Of course if the flux is small enough it may not be an issue.

  7. I have a grammatical comment, Anthony: I believe you would have used your dad’s DC welder to power “its” magnet system, not “it’s” magnet system.

    Always on the lookout for typos…

    REPLY: Fixed

  8. The thing that impressed me about this post was:

    “Full disclosure, I made a cyclotron myself and went to the National Science Fair with it in 1975″

    I knew I was in the company of someone special here.

  9. 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.

    Improved instrumentation has been a major but unheralded contributor to the advancement of science.

  10. They must have been accelerating CO2. After all, what can’t it do? /sarc
    Seriously, if this holds up, what came from the first battery?
    (But I don’t think the developers of the battery had Government assistance.)

  11. I tried a cloud chamber as a high school project. It wasn’t very impressive since you have to wait for a cosmic ray to come through. And then the result is not that visible.

  12. Well, high energy physics is my field after all, and I should commenton whether it could replace the LHC and ILC. .

    This is what I have, together with my general knowledge of lasers:

    Laser-plasma accelerators of only a centimetre’s length have produced nearly monoenergetic electron bunches with energy as high as 1 GeV. Scaling these compact accelerators to multi-gigaelectronvolt energy would open the prospect of building X-ray free-electron lasers and linear colliders hundreds of times smaller than conventional facilities, but the 1 GeV barrier has so far proven insurmountable. Here, by applying new petawatt laser technology, we produce electron bunches with a spectrum prominently peaked at 2 GeV with only a few per cent energy spread and unprecedented sub-milliradian divergence. Petawatt pulses inject ambient plasma electrons into the laser-driven accelerator at much lower density than was previously possible, thereby overcoming the principal physical barriers to multi-gigaelectronvolt acceleration: dephasing between laser-driven wake and accelerating electrons and laser pulse erosion. Simulations indicate that with improvements in the laser-pulse focus quality, acceleration to nearly 10 GeV should be possible with the available pulse energy.

    My answer is : most probably it cannot replace conventional accelerators for the study of elementary particles. This phrase is the crux:

    Petawatt pulses inject ambient plasma electrons into the laser-driven accelerator at much lower density than was previously possible, thereby overcoming the principal physical barriers to multi-gigaelectronvolt acceleration

    We have to wait for a publication and (for me) a free copy before I can be definite, but accelerators are so large for two reasons, the first one being that the acceleration uses magnetic fields in the case of LHC, electric fields in the case of ILC and the energy scales with the magnitude of the fields, which, at the moment, cannot be created at small scales with these techniques. The second component is the large flux needed in the beams since the interaction cross sections are in femptobarns. I would need numbers to be sure in my statement,instead of communications.

    It is an important break through for the sciences that need accelerators for X-rays etc, but not for the study of elementary particles at the moment. It might be though that some bright young researcher could use the principle in an ingenious way for the use of particle physics.

  13. “If we can just keep the funding in place for the next few years…”
    —————————————
    Just claim that you can use it to model man-made global warming – you’ll get your bux.

  14. “If we can just keep the funding in place for the next few years, …

    In my opinion developments like this deserve funding, unlike some other fields of endeavor one might name… like CAGW

  15. “and I powered its magnet system with my dad’s DC welder. I got about 2 MeV out of it. – Anthony”
    _________________________________________________________________

    Ok, you are formally labeled a geek. We have the data now to prove it!

    It is all good>

    Try to find the original video of this though youtube. Controlled by Google, who says what about climate? LOL!

    I could not do it>

  16. “…Then the end users, the chemists and biologists, will come in, and that will lead to more innovations and discoveries.”

    I’d toss terrorists and junk yard governments into the “end user” group. Might as well add NSA too. Somebody somewhere is already working on weaponizing this.

  17. Hey, Code Tech! Are you anywhere near the SEVERE flooding in the Calgary area? Check in and let us know you’re okay!

    All you Alberta, and Saskatchewan, Canada WUWT folks — take care. You are being prayed for.

  18. “It’s a downsizing of a factor of approximately 10,000.”

    After you’ve downsized something by a factor of one haven’t you got down to zero? Reducing something by 100 percent leave nothing.

  19. AS IF I could be ANYTHING but off topic on a thread like this. LOL.

    Well, I CAN say, that it does, indeed, show that you, Anthony, are one cool dude. You were already cool in my book. You just moved into the super-cool category.

  20. Well I’m impressed; but I am still inclined to cry foul.

    Looking at the photo of the “desk top” 2GEV electron accelerator, I had a hard time identifying which bulge on it was the petaWatt laser that drives it.

    Still I’m impressed. Too bad Anna v has been absent for a good bit. The fact that you can accelerate electrons to 2 GEV in just an inch of travel is astonishing. The Stanford two mile linac was built to overcome the EM radiation limit, that restricts the energy of accelerated charged particles, and electrons in particular. Of course Hertz / Maxwell showed that accelerated electric charge; aka varying currents travelling a non zero distance, must radiate EM waves (antenna theory; electric dipoles and the like).

    Niels Bohr decided to unilaterally abrogate that rule, without any justification, so long as the electron remained in one of his sacred orbits. Arnold Sommerfeld compounded the felony, by allowing elliptical orbits as well. The fact that such electrons were continuously accelerating, and with variable acceleration, for Arnies ovals, didn’t seem to bother them.

    Well I guess Quantum mechanics came along and saved their skins, by straightening out the mess.

    So today, accelerated electric charges still radiate; particularly electrons. well that’s a pretty short get up and go in just 25 mm to 2 GEV.

    I just figured out that my ordinary desk to power supply, that I can run my electric toothbrush from, can deliver 3.84 Mega Watts per square metre, and its about as tiny as their accelerator.
    Well I don’t know how big the PG&E nuke or hydrodam on the other end is.

  21. And yes; I too am impressed with Anthony’s 2 MEV cyclotron. Now that takes balls. I never ever aspired to anything that outlandish. My brother and I did try to make our own firecracker factory, when I was about eight. We had the rolling paper strips around a toothpick, to form the casings down pat; sat up in bed all night working our production line. We were still researching the “fire” part of the program, when someone let the cat out of the bag, and we went bankrupt. Well specifically, my brother dropped the pillowcase full of thousands of casings, and we made a hell of a racket trying to pick them all up. Adults just have no imagination.

  22. From george e. smith on June 21, 2013 at 10:25 pm:

    Too bad Anna v has been absent for a good bit.

    Well she is a retired particle physicist in Greece, the bankrupt country of never-ending austerity measures. These days she has to rely on free internet access down at the public library, and the money she earns by teaching quark classifications to passerby in the village square is rarely enough to pay the bribes to the librarians so she can get on the schedule.

    Yes I’m joking. Well, I hope I’m joking. Actually things have been sounding pretty desperate over there, I might be accidentally telling the truth. Heck, that could be even nicer than the reality.

    Is it too late for her to evacuate before the entire economy collapses and she has to fight feral cats over pigeon eggs?

  23. I spent a dozen years building and operating a 1 GeV Free Electron Laser. Our accelerator was 450 feet long so I am pretty impressed if you can can compress 450 feet into one inch. That represents a 5,000 to one improvement in acceleration gradient. Even if the PetaWatt Texas laser takes up 1,500 square feet that is a big improvement over the DFELL with its 450 foot long accelerator tunnel and 20,000 square foot sychrotron building costing roughly $30 million.

    FELs based on 1 GeV electron beams are routine but this new technology may make it more affordable. Based on a 1 Gev electron beam the Duke university HIGS project uses inverse Compton scattering to produce the world’s brightest tunable polarized gamma ray source operating from a few MeV to a theoretical limit of 140 MeV.

    The energy of photons produced by inverse Compton in a head on collision is given by this equation:
    E(gamma photon) = E(incident photon) * 4 * (gamma)^2

    Where “gamma” is proportional to the electron beam energy. If the electron beam has an energy of 1 GeV the “gamma” is ~2,000. The gamma for 20 GeV electrons is roughly 40,000. Assuming one starts with a visible light photon (~2 eV) the resultant gamma ray has an energy of up to 2 * 4 * 40,000 * 40,000 = 12.8 GeV.

    If it proves possible to produce precisely tunable photons in this energy range it will be possible to stimulate nuclear reactions that normally occur only in the core of stars. ITER may turn out to be an expensive waste of time.

    Inverse Compton scattering is believed to be the process that accounts for GRBs (Gamma Ray Bursters).

  24. anna v, June 21, 2013 at 8:59 pm,
    I never thought of myself as a “High Energy Physicist” given that the Duke FELL synchrotron operated at a measly 1.2 GeV on a good day, downhill and with the wind behind us. My idea of “High Energy” was the “Super Collider” that never happened, the Tevatron (thank y’all for those high precision 500 kW power supplies and spare parts) and the LHC.

  25. Hmm, all very impressive, but if you really want a kitchen-table scale atom smasher dig out your dusty old copy of Scientific American for Jan 1959. On the Amateur Scientist pages you’ll find “How to Make an Electrostatic Machine to Accelerate Both Electrons and Protons”. It’s only good for about 0.5MeV, and you still need a reasonable vacuum pump, but it’ll certainly get you a reputation in the neighbourhood.

  26. george e. smith says:
    June 21, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Hi George

    I am here everyday. I have wattsup as my home page :). I am not commenting often because climate science has started to bore me, since it goes in circles, and anyway I am waiting for the other shoe to drop as far as the demise of AGW. Also I have found a physics forum that I am active on since there are a lot of interesting questions there. http://physics.stackexchange.com/ .

  27. I don’t know that much about particle physics…but..

    can I have one, please !!

    Darned if I know where I would put it ,though !

  28. This has ‘Sheldon Cooper’ and ‘set fire to my hamster’ written all over it! :-)

  29. “CJohnson says:
    June 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm
    Well “table top” is a bit misleading, its being driven by a petawatt laser. Admittedly, 1500 square foot room is an improvement but thats the size of a house last I checked.”

    Well, Mister Johnson, it’s “table top” size for a Texas house. I have a bowling alley in my walk-in closet in San Antonio! We provide Segways so guests can get from the living room to the dining room before dinner gets cold. By the time I get from the bedroom to the kitchen each morning, I’ve worn out a pair of cowboy boots. My garage is in another county, and my backyard IS another county. My shower is so big it has its own weather. And furthermore…;)

  30. An irony that an organization of a country supposed to be the champion of liberty does not allow to differ.Is it a bad history again repeated ?

  31. Kadaka (KD Knoebel) says:
    June 21, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Well she is a retired particle physicist in Greece, the bankrupt country of never-ending austerity measures.

    True, we still have not bottomed. Thanks for your concern.

    Well, I hope I’m joking. Actually things have been sounding pretty desperate over there,

    Greece is being used as a guinea pig to the theory of internal deflation. . Don’t try this at home.
    It works badly.

    Salaries and pensions have been cut from 30 to 60 percent , the high cuts on high salaries and pensions, which sort of squeezes everybody. Taxes upon taxes are imposed reducing income even further. We have had years in Greece during and after the junta in 1967, where inflation was 30% and the drachma was being devalued from month to month. We survived with little social unrest. I do not know the outcome of this experiment, but I think that explosions are not far away, because people, the hoi polloi, do not understand that we are bankrupt. Had we gotten out of the eurozone in 2009 when the trouble started we would have been much better off socially even if in the same place financially. After all, with all the billions in lending from the EU etc our public debt is bigger than it was in 2009. The borrowed money goes into paying interests on the debt!. I think the arm of the government at the time was twisted not to get out of the eurozone, because the EU countries ( call me Germany) had a lot of the debt. In the intervening years they got rid of it while we flounder in bigger and bigger debt with worse legal ramifications. The Grexit is not an option now because of these stricter bonds. :( .

  32. Wow. This is fantastic. Could it be a path to mass (no pun intended) production of anti-matter. Then we have rocket fuel, baby!

  33. cedarhill says June 21, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    The Texax laser takes up about 1,500 sq. ft. in a clean room. At over 30 feet, it’d be hard to put that on most “desktops”. However, even with the room-size laser — wow!

    Tie this in with work on high-power solid state lasers.

  34. “”””…..anna v says:

    June 22, 2013 at 12:38 am

    george e. smith says:
    June 21, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Hi George

    I am here everyday. I have wattsup as my home page :). I am not commenting often because climate science has started to bore me, since it goes in circles, and anyway I am waiting for the other shoe to drop as far as the demise of AGW. Also I have found a physics forum that I am active on since there are a lot of interesting questions there. http://physics.stackexchange.com/ ……””””

    Well I think you’re a whole lot smarter than I am Anna; so I should check out your Physics site.

    I once sat at a card table drinking a beer with the Canadian Nobel Physicist who showed that Quarks exist (he’s a SLAC guy). Next time I have that opportunity, I want to ask him what’s with “Black Body Radiation” because nobody could have ever observed it; you would have to throw out everything about Maxwell’s equations and Fresnel reflection (polarized) to have a real black body; so why is it such an important non thing in 20th century Physics.

    But I have to admit, that I tire of all the statistical analysis, where everybody is trying to find the correct detrending, and straight line fit to an obviously non straight line data set, to determine the magic R^2 and p or sigma, that will pop out of the curtain, and prove that MMAGWCC really exists, or really doesn’t exist.

    I’m quite confident, that so long as the sun shines, and the oceans remain, that most of the world’s surface area will remain comfortably livable, at least until the next mile wide asteroid makes a direct hit on earth; that H2O stuff is one devilishly clever feedback stuff, that keeps us all safe and comfortable, no matter how much CO2 humans and Mother Gaia, spew out into the atmosphere.

    When the big Indonesian tsunami, hit Bangladesh, all the cows and elephants ran for the high ground, while all the dumb and dumberer humans ran out onto the mudflats to pick up their free fish.

    But we do all hope that Greece figures out how to make it through the current situation.

    I learned today, that the current executive branch administration of the United States Government, has just 8% of its staff, who EVER had a job in a real business; down to and including a lemonade stand.

    That is the lowest percentage, in our entire (US) history. And it is just one fourth of whichever previous administration is in second place.

    We have THE most incompetent bunch of dunderheads running our country, that we have ever had. Average exec branches have had around 50 % people who EVER had a real job.

    So pray for us too. Obamacare kicks in, in just 4 months.

  35. “Downer compared it to what would happen if you threw a motorboat into a lake with its engines churning. The boat (the laser) makes a splash, then creates a wave as it moves through the lake at high speed. During that initial splash some droplets (charged particles) break off, get caught up in the wave and accelerate by surfing on it.”

    If you are ionizing a gas and creating a plasma that is highly structured, then double layers of charge are being formed. When a particle passes through a double layer, it is accelerated. I am not sure there is any surfing going on here.

  36. anna v says:

    June 22, 2013 at 9:25 am
    //////////////////

    The EU just lent Greece money so that Greece could use it to pay back banks etc in the large EU countries such as Germany and France, not to help the Greek economy or to fund infrasturcture improvements and structural changes. Effectively, the money was used to bail out German and in particular French banks which held a lot of Greek debt. Greece itself did not benefit at all; as you say, Greek debt is now higher (and, of course, unemployment higher and living standards lower) .

    It did not help the other peritheries such as Spain and Italy. Indeed, it has made their fragile positions far worse. They contributed to the ‘loan’ being made to Greece, but they had no money to loan, so they had to go to the markets to borrow money at high rates (5 to 8% depending on timing) and Spain and Italy cannot afford to service those debts pushing them further into debt. It was OK for Germany since if it needed to borrow money to ‘loan’ to Greece, it did so at low interest rates of under 2%.

    This is politics at its very worst.Conceiling the true purpose of the loan, ie., not to save Greece but to save the French banks in particular, and to a lesser extent German banks. It did nothing to assist Greece and it was madness to force Spain, Italy and Portugal to borrow money at high interest rates so they could contibute their share towards the Greek bailout, thereby making more likely not less likely that those Southern European countries would need bail outs.

    Pity also the Cypriots. Much of their bank problems were caused by teh EU who were suggesting that it was safe to lend money to Greek banks and take out Greek bonds, and there would not be
    haircuts for such investors. When the EU insisted that those with Greek bonds would have to take haircuts then Cyprus’s fate was sealed. Cyprus was the casualty of that decision.

    Personally, I can’t understand why the Spanish banks have not collapsed. i would have expected that anyone with any money (say more than €10,000) would take their money out of these banks just in case the EU do another raid just like Cyprus but this time follow through with the take of a share of even small savings.

    We read some really appalling stories about life in Greece (today there is a story about how middle class parents can’t afford to look after their kids and are placing them in orphanages). I just hope that things begin to improve but it is difficult to see how this can happen in the short term. I also really hope that Greece is not forced into selling all its assets. It will regret that.

  37. “A table top x-ray laser”

    One potential huge application for this would be micro tomography. At present desktop “microCT” exists (a commercial technology in its second decade) but its accuracy is hampered by the polychromatic x-rays from lab x-ray sources. For monochromatic tomography one has to go to a synchrotron.

    But the small print which up to now has stopped this application is the tiny x-ray flux from x-ray lasers. One needs something more like continuous flux, femtosecond pulses are not much use here. For 3d image reconstruction one needs enough photons for good image signal/noise. About 10,000 photons detected per pixel, 10-16 million pixels in the camera, for several thousand projection images per scan.

    If x-ray lasers could produce the goods on this scale, stably and reliably for several years, this would be a disruptive transformation of x-ray microtomography. So I would like to see the small print on flux and stability.

  38. Who needs equipment like this in research laboratories? Scientists are moving away from doing science to proving dogma now. All they need are some models programmed to give the results that they want to prove…

  39. Can’t help but recall this UPI headline from a few days ago “Terrorism radiation plot uncovered in Albany, N.Y.” ? Maybe it wasn’t so far fetched after all, Then again of course its always prudent to read between the lines on everything reported in the media before donning the tinfoil hat…

  40. anna v

    I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here and this isn’t a political site.
    Best bet for Greece is to default, revert to the Drachma and walk away from the EU.

    For years Germany has been financing your élites buying BMWs & Mercedes.

    Bite back!

    DaveE.

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