A way to make tiny particle accelerators? Make particles surf.

Edda Gschwendtner speaks at TEDxCERN about plasma wakefield accelerators (Photo:  Maximilien Brice/CERN)

Edda Gschwendtner speaks at TEDxCERN about plasma wakefield accelerators (Photo:
Maximilien Brice/CERN)

Why do we need particle accelerators? At TEDxCERN, Edda Gschwendtner, project leader of CERN’s plasma wakefield acceleration experiment (AWAKE) puts it bluntly: “To understand the origin of the universe; how it all became, and to understand and see the smallest building blocks of matter.”

So far, in the world of particle acceleration, bigger has meant better, she says. The 17-mile Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN — the largest particle accelerator in the world — has added a tremendous amount to our knowledge of the building blocks of our Universe, Gschwendtner says, including confirming the existence of the Higgs boson in 2012, a discovery that resulted in a Nobel Prize. Big machines like the LHC allow scientists to see matter that is a billion times smaller than an atom, Gschwendtner explains, and to see things even smaller, the plan is to build accelerators that are bigger.

But this might be the wrong way to advance accelerator experiments, Gschwendtner argues. Instead of building bigger machines that require more space and resources, engineers should instead focus on reinventing how accelerators work, she says.

Her team at AWAKE does just that.

How? By searching for ways that little machines could produce big power. AWAKE is testing an experimental type of acceleration — plasma wakefield acceleration — that relies on plasma and several pulses of particles to power protons. Gschwendtner equates the technology to that of a surfer using boat-created waves in order to surf on a lake. “We have a plasma (the lake), we have a drive beam (the boat), which creates wakefields (the waves) and then we inject particles on the waves to get accelerated (the surfers).”

At AWAKE, they have a unique and powerful proton beam “boat” coming from CERN’s Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) accelerator (which feeds proton beams into the LHC), Gschwendtner says, and this boat produces powerful wakefields (waves) that allow particles to “surf” over a long distance.

The plasma wakefield acceleration model is capable of creating waves that are 1,000 times the power than the electric fields created in the conventional accelerators, Gschwendtner says. In other words, an accelerator that is 100 kilometers could shrink to 100 meters without sacrificing any of its power.

“The plasma wakefield acceleration technology will enable the industrial, the medical and the research applications to become much more accessible,” Gschwendtner says. “A plasma wakefield accelerator could one day become a tabletop device within reach of your local doctor’s office or a university lab in any region of the world … if all these applications materialize, particle physicists and scientists could perform experiments beyond their wildest imagination.”

To learn more, watch Gschwendtner’s whole talk below:

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