As official confirmations slowly but surely come in, we can anticipate the next decade will see the birth of several large-scale particle accelerators all around the world. Among others are SPIRAL2 (France), Linac4 (Switzerland), XFEL (Germany), FAIR (Germany), IFMIF-EVEDA (Japan), ThomX (France), SuperB (Italy), HL – LHC (Switzerland), ESS (Sweden) and MYRRHA (Belgium). As an example, the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility, IFMIF, is an accelerator-based neutron source that will use Deuterium-Lithium stripping reactions to simulate 14 MeV neutrons from Deuterium-Tritium fusion reactions.
The innovation stream driven by such large-scale projects not only leads to discoveries by the users of such facilities once operational, but the commissioning itself drives significant innovation from the various providers involved. A case in point is the cost reduction for the electronics (FPGA data acquisition and others) required for Digital LLRF and BPM sections. You probably won’t have your own particle accelerator at home next year, but they are definitely getting closer to your doorstep.
Scientific Applications of Particle Accelerators
The discovery of the Higgs boson in July of 2012 at CERN made the news all over the world (it even made it to CNN!). Although still an abstract concept, this discovery allowed us to see yet another example of what investments in particle accelerators can bring, aside from the usual stuff like inventing the Web, or shooting movies involving antimatter.
Most research at particle accelerators is centered on particle physics. Remember your chemistry class periodic table? Well, chances are that new elements have come up since the last time you looked at it. There is no question such high-end research centers are at the heart of many innovations we see around us (semiconductor transistors, lasers, nanotechnology, medical imaging, cancer treatments, and more). What may come as a surprise is what can be achieved with smaller scale accelerators.
Particle Accelerators: Coming Soon to a Facility Near You
All particle accelerators are not created equal: only a minority of them are used for fundamental and applied research. Smaller scale particle accelerators are required in various ‘everyday life’ applications, such as radioisotope generation for MicroPET and PET/MRI scanners. Industrial versions of particle accelerators are also used in applications such as radiotherapy, surface modification of materials, and biomedical therapies. Their role in today’s economy is actually more important than you may think. As stated by Barletta et al
Just as with GPS, which were originally deployed only for military usage and slowly migrated into consumer products, the particle accelerators that are now used in various industrial applications all originated from large-scale scientific versions such as those mentioned previously. And their adoption is likely to increase over the years. As an example, with the increasing need for radioisotopes for MicroPET and PET/MRI scanners, this market faces significant growth potential over the coming years. How is this possible, when not so long ago particle accelerators where reserved for high-security, kilometer-long, high-end physics facilities?
Interestingly enough, the large-scale particle accelerators of the past have helped in the general adoption of today’s accelerators in two ways.
First, as with GPS, there is the concept of economy of scale. As more accelerators are built, the demand arises, which opens the door for new offerings, and makes the return on investment compelling for certain products which were not viable before. Nutaq’s MI125 and PicoDigitizer systems are perfect examples of this. Not long ago, the demand wasn’t significant enough to justify investment in such a high power, low cost-per-channel solution. But as demand grew, so did our interest in looking for ways to address the market. The result is a much cheaper, and highly flexible FPGA data acquisition system for BPM and DLLRF design engineers.
Second, and this is where things get especially interesting, innovation also comes from the actual discoveries made by research performed in the earlier accelerators. By leading to discoveries in semiconductor transistors, past particle accelerators helped FPGA device manufacturers move toward more and more efficient semiconductor manufacturing processes, leading to unit cost reduction, higher processing power, and lower power consumption. Without such innovation, forget about lower cost-per-channel electronics. What’s the point of sampling all those high-speed channels, if you don’t have the powerful engine to process them? So on top of economies of scale, scientists reap the benefits of their past work in the electronics they use today to perform research. Talk about organic growth.
Far from being purely theoretic and useless, advanced physics research performed by particle accelerator scientists is at the heart of many innovations used in today’s world. Their essential role in our economy is likely to grow significantly, as we get increasingly dependent on technology-based products. Clearly, particle accelerators are at the heart of fast-paced innovation, which makes this an industry Nutaq is incredibly proud to be a part of.
- Barletta, William A., Swapan Chattopadhyay and Andrei Seryi. 2012. Educating and Training Accelerator Scientists and Technologists for Tomorrow. Cornell University Library. http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1207/1207.3065.pdf