Researchers have discovered a mini antimatter accelerator that could allow particles to be accelerated in a 1000x smaller space than current accelerators, boosting the science of exotic particles.
The mini antimatter accelerator could be used to investigate more unknown areas of physics, such as the properties of the Higgs boson and the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and provide more sensitive testing of aircraft and computer chips.
The new method has been modelled using the properties of existing lasers. According to the Imperial College London, if proven, the technology could allow many more labs around the world to conduct antimatter acceleration experiments.
What are particle accelerators used for?
Accelerators, in facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Switzerland, and the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at Stanford University, USA, speed up elementary particles like protons and electrons.
Particles that are accelerated can be smashed together to produce particles that are more elementary, like the Higgs boson, which gives all other particles mass. The accelerated particles can also be used to generate X-ray laser light, which is used to image extremely fast and small process, such as photosynthesis.
The mini antimatter accelerator
For particles to reach these high speeds, the accelerators need to use equipment that is at least two kilometres long. Previously, researchers at Imperial College London had invented a system that could accelerate electrons using equipment only meters long.
Now a researcher at the university has invented a method of accelerating the antimatter version of electrons – known as positrons – in a system that would be just centimetres long. The accelerator would require a type of laser system that currently covers around 25 square metres, but is already present in many physics labs.
Dr Aakash Sahai, from the Department of Physics at Imperial reported his method in the Physical Review Journal for Accelerators and Beams. He said: “With this new accelerator method, we could drastically reduce the size and the cost of antimatter acceleration. What is now only possible by using large physics facilities at tens of million-dollar costs could soon be possible in ordinary physics labs.”
He continued: “A new generation of compact, energetic and cheap accelerators of elusive particles would allow us to probe new physics – and allow many more labs worldwide to join the effort.”
How will the research be possible?
The new method which is currently undergoing experimental validation, uses lasers and plasma to produce concentrated positrons and accelerate them to create a beam. This centimetre-scale accelerator could use existing lasers to accelerate positron beams with tens of millions of particles to the same energy as reached over two kilometres at the Stanford accelerator.
Colliding electron and positron beams could have implications in fundamental physics. For example, they could create a higher rate of Higgs bosons than the LHC can, allowing physicists to better study its properties. They could also be used to look for new particles, which would fill in some gaps in the Standard Model of particle physics.
The positron beams would also have practical applications. Currently, when checking for faults and fracture risks in materials such as aircraft bodies, engine blades and computer chips, x-rays or electron beams are used.