Next-generation particle accelerators promise big benefits
A new generation of particle accelerators will help physicists explore the mysteries of the universe, provide engineers with novel tools to combat pollution and enable doctors to treat cancer more effectively. An EU-funded project is leading the advance, developing technologies that are set to have a profound impact on science and society.
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The EU-funded ARIES project, with 41 research and industrial partners across Europe, is addressing the breadth of particle accelerator applications, from gigantic high-energy physics facilities, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), to machines used in hospitals, factories or, in the future, even on-board ships.
In a matter of years, ARIES results could provide a new generation of particle accelerators for hospitals to improve medical imaging and cancer treatment, a system to reduce harmful particle emissions in the global shipping sector and, longer term, a significant expansion of particle-accelerator technologies across diverse industries and scientific fields.
From huge research machines to small industrial units, all accelerators share the same fundamental principles and the same basic technologies. The goal of ARIES is to bring together the wider accelerator community to jointly address key technological challenges and make future accelerators more compact, more efficient and more affordable, says project coordinator Maurizio Vretenar at CERN in Switzerland.
The worlds biggest and best-known particle accelerator, the LHC at CERN, has enabled major advances in our understanding of how the universe works. But while the LHC spins particles around a 27-kilometre circuit at close to the speed of light, more than 30 000 other particle accelerators worldwide make use of the same principles on a smaller scale to energise subatomic protons, electrons, ions or photons.
Many of these accelerators are based on technologies developed more than half a century ago, such as machines used in hospitals for radiation therapy to destroy cancer tumours with targeted beams of protons and ions, or to produce radioactive isotopes for medical imaging. The machines, which use radio and radar-type waves to accelerate the particle beams, are large, expensive and consume vast amounts of energy, limiting their use and accessibility.
Newer, cheaper and more efficient accelerators are therefore needed to greatly extend the applications and fully harness the benefits of modern particle acceleration technology, including advanced systems that use lasers and plasmas to energise particles.
Making accelerators more efficient
In the medical field, we are investigating how to use modern accelerator technologies to treat cancer, and are designing a new generation of small accelerators to be installed in hospitals for on-demand production of isotopes for medical imaging which could become commercially available in three to four years, Vretenar says. Any improvement in accelerator technologies will widen the use of these specialised techniques and make them accessible to a larger number of patients.
In the environmental field, the ARIES team is exploring particle accelerator-based systems for the treatment of harmful flue gases and sewage sludge. Furthermore, the project is investigating a promising technology that could see compact particle accelerators installed on cargo ships to enable the efficient scrubbing of environmentally harmful sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions.
The environmental impact of shipping is a major societal concern it has been estimated that one large container ship can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars! Our accelerator system, which we plan to develop further in a follow-up project, is a good candidate for retrofitting existing engines and tackling this issue, possibly at lower cost than other emission-reduction solutions, Vretenar explains.
Powering high-energy physics research
The ARIES project is not only focusing on developing smaller-scale industrial accelerator systems, but is also targeting advances in key scientific research uses on giant scales, including at the LHC and similar multi-billion-euro facilities. Members of the team are designing a collider for muons, exotic particles similar to electrons but with much greater mass, that will fit into the 27-km tunnel of the LHC, enabling scientists to push the frontiers of fundamental physics research while reusing existing infrastructure at a lower cost.
Other benefits are set to emerge from the development of new high-temperature superconductors that offer a two-fold increase in performance compared to current materials, as well as the development of carbon-based and metal-diamond composite materials with unique thermal properties for use in extreme particle accelerators.
The innovations being explored and developed in ARIES aim to make scientific accelerators more sustainable, reducing their impact on the environment and economy, while making medical and industrial accelerators more accessible, decreasing their cost and increasing their performance, says Vretenar. Our wider challenge is to make future scientific discoveries possible in a society where funding mega-projects is becoming increasingly difficult while, at the same time, extending to a larger part of society the benefits of new particle accelerator-based technologies through medical, environmental and material engineering applications.