Stanford scientists create a miniature particle accelerator-on-a-chip

There are particle accelerators scattered around the world that are used by scientists and researchers to study the atomic and molecular structures of inorganic and biological materials. The typical particle accelerator is a massive device. The accelerator that Stanford University has is nearly 2 miles long and can accelerate electrons to nearly the speed of light.

The problem with traditional particle accelerators is their size, which limits the number of accelerators around the world. Stanford and SLAC scientists have created, for the first time, a silicon chip that can accelerate electrons. The catch is that the silicon chip can only accelerate the electrons to a fraction of the speed a full-size accelerator is capable of.

The silicon chip uses an infrared laser to deliver, in less than a hair's width of space, the sort of energy boost that usually requires many feet for microwaves. The team created a nanoscale channel out of silicon and then sealed it in a vacuum, and sent electrons through the cavity. Pulses of infrared light were transmitted by the channel walls to speed the electrons along.

The accelerator-on-a-chip is a prototype for now, but the team behind it thinks that the design and fabrication can be scaled up to deliver particle beams accelerated enough to perform cutting-edge experiments in chemistry, materials science, and biological discovery. These tests don't need the power of a massive accelerator.

The team says that the largest accelerators are like the largest telescopes in that there are only a few in the world, and scientists have to travel to them to use them. The team wants to minimize the tool to make it more accessible. The invention could also lead to new cancer radiation therapies.