Visitors at the LINAC 4 accelerator at CERN

Portable particle accelerators open up ‘brave new world of applications’, says CERN scientist

Image credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

A new, small particle accelerator unveiled at CERN could be the basis for developing miniature accelerators with applications in medicine and art history.

The Linac 4 accelerator was inaugurated in a ceremony at CERN yesterday. Linac 4 – the latest upgrade to the LHC facility – is a 90m linear accelerator buried beneath Geneva. It cost $93 million and took ten years to build. It will replace the current, ageing Linac accelerator.

CERN is in the process of upgrading its hardware so the future High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (LHC), also nicknamed the “Super LHC”, will be able to reach energies 10 times higher than is currently possible. This will allow more valuable data to be harvested.

The LHC, the world’s largest single machine and experimental facility, is a 27km particle accelerator forming a colossal circle beneath the border of Switzerland and France. Particles are accelerated around the loop and forced to collide at near the speed of light in energetic interactions, recreating the conditions in the early universe. Physicists use data from the LHC to probe fundamental mysteries of our universe, such as the nature of dark matter.

The Linac colliders are part of the LHC’s “injection chain”, whereby larger and larger accelerators raise the energy of particles before they join the main ring. Particles from the Linac accelerator are injected into the Proton Synchrotron Booster, the Proton Synchrotron, the Super Proton Synchrotron then finally the main ring.

Visitors at the LINAC 4 inauguration

Image credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

According to Linac 4 project leader, Maurizio Vretenar, CERN have miniaturised their accelerator technology, and saw a “brave new world of applications”.

Already, CERN have built a miniature particle accelerator to treat tumours with high energy beams of particles. A similar accelerator could be used within hospitals to create short-lived isotopes for diagnosing cancers.

Vretenar’s next goal is a 1m prototype accelerator weighing just 100kg, a world away from the 27km long LHC buried beneath the France-Switzerland border. This could be used, he says, for museums to analyse paintings and jewellery.

“We are building something portable,” he said. “We already have a collaboration with the Louvre, and with the Italians at Florence at the Italian institute for conservation of artworks.”

The Louvre is the only museum to be equipped with an in-house particle accelerator, used to analyse its artefacts after the museum closes its doors. It can be used to detect heavy elements which signal where a piece of jewellery may have been mined from, or date a particular paint to detect art fraud.

The Linac 4 accelerator will be incorporated into CERN’s accelerator complex during 2019 to 2020, when the LHC will undergo a technical shutdown to upgrade its hardware in preparation for the High-Luminosity LHC.

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