August 26, 2015

Progress to Smaller, Cheaper Particle Colliders and efficient antimatter production

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of California, Los Angeles have demonstrated a new, efficient way to accelerate positrons, the antimatter opposites of electrons. The method may help boost the energy and shrink the size of future linear particle colliders – powerful accelerators that could be used to unravel the properties of nature’s fundamental building blocks.

The scientists had previously shown that boosting the energy of charged particles by having them “surf” a wave of ionized gas, or plasma, works well for electrons. While this method by itself could lead to smaller accelerators, electrons are only half the equation for future colliders. Now the researchers have hit another milestone by applying the technique to positrons at SLAC’s Facility for Advanced Accelerator Experimental Tests (FACET), a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

“Together with our previous achievement, the new study is a very important step toward making smaller, less expensive next-generation electron-positron colliders,” said SLAC’s Mark Hogan, co-author of the study published today in Nature. “FACET is the only place in the world where we can accelerate positrons and electrons with this method.”

Simulation of high-energy positron acceleration in an ionized gas, or plasma – a new method that could help power next-generation particle colliders. The image shows the formation of a high-density plasma (green/orange color) around a positron beam moving from the bottom right to the top left. Plasma electrons pass by the positron beam on wave-like trajectories (lines). (W. An/UCLA)

Future particle colliders will require highly efficient acceleration methods for both electrons and positrons. Plasma wakefield acceleration of both particle types, as shown in this simulation, could lead to smaller and more powerful colliders than today’s machines. (F. Tsung/W. An/UCLA/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Nature - Multi-gigaelectronvolt acceleration of positrons in a self-loaded plasma wakefield

Shrinking Particle Colliders

Researchers study matter’s fundamental components and the forces between them by smashing highly energetic particle beams into one another. Collisions between electrons and positrons are especially appealing, because unlike the protons being collided at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012 – these particles aren’t made of smaller constituent parts.

“These collisions are simpler and easier to study,” said SLAC’s Michael Peskin, a theoretical physicist not involved in the study. “Also, new, exotic particles would be produced at roughly the same rate as known particles; at the LHC they are a billion times more rare.”

However, current technology to build electron-positron colliders for next-generation experiments would require accelerators that are tens of kilometers long. Plasma wakefield acceleration is one way researchers hope to build shorter, more economical accelerators.

Previous work showed that the method works efficiently for electrons: When one of FACET’s tightly focused bundles of electrons enters an ionized gas, it creates a plasma “wake” that researchers use to accelerate a trailing second electron bunch.


Electrical breakdown sets a limit on the kinetic energy that particles in a conventional radio-frequency accelerator can reach. New accelerator concepts must be developed to achieve higher energies and to make future particle colliders more compact and affordable. The plasma wakefield accelerator (PWFA) embodies one such concept, in which the electric field of a plasma wake excited by a bunch of charged particles (such as electrons) is used to accelerate a trailing bunch of particles. To apply plasma acceleration to electron–positron colliders, it is imperative that both the electrons and their antimatter counterpart, the positrons, are efficiently accelerated at high fields using plasmas. Although substantial progress has recently been reported on high-field, high-efficiency acceleration of electrons in a PWFA powered by an electron bunch, such an electron-driven wake is unsuitable for the acceleration and focusing of a positron bunch. Here we demonstrate a new regime of PWFAs where particles in the front of a single positron bunch transfer their energy to a substantial number of those in the rear of the same bunch by exciting a wakefield in the plasma. In the process, the accelerating field is altered—‘self-loaded’—so that about a billion positrons gain five gigaelectronvolts of energy with a narrow energy spread over a distance of just 1.3 meters. They extract about 30 per cent of the wake’s energy and form a spectrally distinct bunch with a root-mean-square energy spread as low as 1.8 per cent. This ability to transfer energy efficiently from the front to the rear within a single positron bunch makes the PWFA scheme very attractive as an energy booster to an electron–positron collider.

SOURCES - SLAC National Accelerator Laborator, Nature, Youtube

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