What does a particle accelerator do and how is it useful to us?

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What does a particle accelerator do and how is it useful to us?

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Anonymous 0 Comments

Particle accelerators cause a collection of atomic or subatomic particles, such as metal ions or protons, to accelerate to very high speeds (close to the speed of light) by using electromagnetic fields to push them forward. Most of them these days are “cyclotrons,” meaning the track is circular, so they can keep putting more and more energy in (up to very high energy). Once the particles are up to speed, they are released to hit a target of some kind, usually a very pure, very small sample of metal.

When the beam of fast particles hits the target, most of the particles will sail right through, because matter is mostly empty space. But a small number of them will hit the atoms of the target, adding an enormous amount of energy very, very fast. This usually causes the hit atoms to be torn apart, spraying all sorts of other particles around the target chamber.

With modern particle accelerators, the target chamber is surrounded by layers of detectors that use semiconductors (like the processor chips that make your computer work), which respond when energetic particles fly through them. That’s how we “see” what sprayed out of the target when it was hit by the beam. By looking at the data for how that spray of particles moved, we can determine how much mass they had, how much charge, and how fast they were moving. This information can be used to prove the existence of particles we didn’t know about before.

This is useful because it lets us test our theories about particle physics. Understanding more about these particles can help us develop new technologies, but it’s also just useful for pure scientific understanding, even if it doesn’t lead to any new applications.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s like the name says. It accelerates particles.

Okay, that’s definitely not satisfactory. Let’s try that again. By using carefully calibrated electromagnets, a particle accelerator gets charged particles up to a generous portion of the speed of light. But that’s not the important thing. It’s what happens after they’re accelerated that scientists want to pay attention to. If you have two streams of particles that go in opposite directions and get them to collide with each other in the right spot, they’ll release huge amounts of energy which produce other more exotic particles that can only last for a minuscule amount of time. Special sensors then detect either these new particles or the product of their decay.

Why is it useful? There are a lot of competing theories on precisely how subatomic particles work. Each has different predictions for what more exotic particles can do, and the results of those collisions can make or break these theories, so that theoretical physicists might have to either scrap or refine them. Depending on what the theories predict, they might lead to physical laws that we weren’t previously aware of that we might be able to harness at some point in the future.

tl;dr: Particle accelerators smack subatomic particles together at near light speed and we then sift through the debris to see if it matches what we expect.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Others explained how it’s good for science.

There are a ton of other uses for accelerators as well. A lot of medical procedures involve scanning by sending high energy radiation through the body and into a film on the other side. These radiations are either directly from small table top accelerators or using radioactive materials that were created by powerful particle accelerators.

Anonymous 0 Comments


Anonymous 0 Comments

For once, the name is perfectly self explanatory. It accelerates particles.

How is it useful is the more complex and interesting question, because there isn’t just one particle accelerator, and different types have different uses.

But to keep it relatively simple, there’s three main things particle accelerators are used for:

1) The most famous, like LHC, are particle smashers. They smash particles together and see what happens after. It’s a window to fundamental physics, that’s how new particles and other phenomena are discovered.

2) Generating really intense radiation. Because of physics that I won’t get into, having particles go round abd round creates lots of radiation (it’s called synchrotron radiation). It turns out that this can be fairly useful for scanning things. Think x-ray on steroids.

3) Generating radioactive isotopes. This one is a fairly unknown use for how common and important it is. Many medical scans in hospitals use radioactive dyes. The radioactive materials in those dyes are very fast decaying, so they need to be manufactured shortly before use. That’s done in comparatively lower powered accelerators smashing atoms together to get heavier, radioactive elements.

Then there’s some more specific, one-off uses that would take a technical explanation for each because they investigate very specific phenomena.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Imagine giant aliens discovered our automobiles. They don’t know anything about our engines, or screwdrivers, or anything at all about the parts of a car or that different parts are plastic and steel and aluminum. Eventually, they get the idea to crash two of our cars into each other at crazy fast speeds using a giant rubber slingshot to see what happens.

When the cars slam into each other and break apart, the alien get much better understandings by observing the pieces during the collision. They see the engine fly out of one car, and the bumper off another, but they don’t know what exactly they do. From how some of the other parts fly away, they figure out some pieces are lighter than others and start figuring out material properties of plastic and steel. They keep doing this again and again and note that every car has many of the same basic components, but some of them are arranged in different ways.

This is how a super collider works. We can’t actually deal with the atomic particles, but we can get them going super fast and smash them into each other. This lets us start figuring out things in physics that we normally wouldn’t be able to discover. This might lead to new science and uses down the road that we can’t even imagine today.