Physicists principally use accelerators for two purposes. Firstly, accelerated particles can probe deep inside atoms. This is because increasing a particle’s momentum decreases its wavelength. All particles propagate like waves and shorter wavelengths can detect smaller objects. Higher energies also allow particles to get closer together before being deflected thus making smaller details of their structure important in determining how they bounce off each other. Secondly, the energy of very fast moving particles can be used to create the new, exotic particles that Physicists want to study. The more kinetic energy the particle possesses, the more massive particles can be created.

The first stage in the experimental process is to produce and harness the particles we want to accelerate. This is straight forward. Electrons are given off when a metal is heated and robbing a hydrogen atom of its electron leaves us with a proton. Electrons and protons are the best particles to use in accelerators because they are charged and stable. Pions and Kaons can also be accelerated but their lifetimes are relatively short, limiting the purity of beams.

Electric fields speed up the particles which strike a target. Accelerators based on electromagnetism have been used since the 1930’s. The target may either be fixed or take the form of another fast moving particle. Detectors set up around the collision record what happens.

At first, particles reached only modest energies using accelerator designs such as the cyclotron. Today, energies of up to TeV can be achieved. This is equivalent only to events moments after the big bang. Hence, each successive energy that is achieved allows us to probe earlier and earlier into the creation of our Universe.

Find out more about accelerators below:

  1. Accelerators
  2. The first accelerators
  3. R-F Cavities
  4. Fixed target and colliding beam accelerators
  5. Focusing the particle beams
  6. Linear Accelerators
  7. Synchrotrons
  8. Detectors