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ATOM SMASHER ON A CHIP technology demonstrated

Is that a Large Hadron Collider in your pocket or ... oh, you've lost it already

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Stanford uni scientists have created a particle accelerator on a chip smaller than a grain of rice (albeit one that won't actually accelerate particles).

The details are in heavyweight boffinry mag Nature, in a paper titled Demonstration of electron acceleration in a laser-driven dielectric microstructure.

Particle acceleration is, apparently, a two-stage process before you can successfully smash subatomic particles into each other and see what comes out the other side.

First, you must get the electrons up to speed and then ramp up their energy using electric fields and a precisely engineered tube of ridges. Crucially, this amount of energy determines the resulting matter that flies out of any collisions, which is why this property is important.

The new tiny chip does that second bit, providing the extra push using etched glass and an infra-red laser as this wonderfully informative video demonstrates:

Youtube Video

Next up is the challenge of getting the electrons up to speed in the first place, and a collaborating team from Germany's Max Planck Institute has simultaneously published first experiments utilising a less-easily-animated technique to accomplish that.

If that technique works, and if it were combined with the new chip of etched glass, it should be possible to create small and cheap particle accelerators, allowing anyone to probe the mysteries of the early universe from the kitchen table.

Fun as that would be, the more practical applications are portable x-ray generators, including those suitable for medical imaging, which is why everybody's favourite crazy-tech-funder DARPA is prominent on the list of backers (though the US government's Office of Science covered most of the costs). ®

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