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Plasma wakefield "turbocharges" particle accelerator

14 February 2007

Physicists in the US claim to have doubled the 42 GeV electron-beam energy of the three-kilometre-long Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre (SLAC) by simply adding a metre-long device on the end. The device, which uses a plasma wakefield to accelerate a small fraction of the electron beam, could allow conventional particle accelerators to reach higher energies (Nature 445 741).

By the time CERN's Large Electron-Positron (LEP) collider was dismantled to make way for the forthcoming Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2000, it had pushed the record for accelerated electron energies over 100 GeV. But such energies are not easy to come by, and the LHC will come with a final price tag of about $8 billion.

Now, Mark Hogan and his team from the SLAC and two Californian universities have shown that devices based on "plasma wakefields" – a much smaller and potentially cheaper technology – can supplement existing, conventional accelerators by "turbocharging" the particles as they leave. They have developed a device just 85 cm long that took the 42 GeV electron beam at SLAC up to 85 GeV.

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