Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab), used a specialized petawatt laser and a charged-particle gas called plasma to get the particles up to speed. The setup is known as a laser-plasma accelerator, an emerging class of particle accelerators that physicists believe can shrink traditional, miles-long accelerators to machines that can fit on a table.
The researchers sped up the particles—electrons in this case—inside a nine-centimeter long tube of plasma. The speed corresponded to an energy of 4.25 giga-electron volts. The acceleration over such a short distance corresponds to an energy gradient 1000 times greater than traditional particle accelerators and marks a world record energy for laser-plasma accelerators.
A 9 cm-long capillary discharge waveguide used in BELLA experiments to generate multi-GeV electron beams. The plasma plume has been made more prominent with the use of HDR photography. Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt
Traditional particle accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which is 17 miles in circumference, speed up particles by modulating electric fields inside a metal cavity. It’s a technique that has a limit of about 100 mega-electron volts per meter before the metal breaks down.
Laser-plasma accelerators take a completely different approach. In the case of this experiment, a pulse of laser light is injected into a short and thin straw-like tube that contains plasma. The laser creates a channel through the plasma as well as waves that trap free electrons and accelerate them to high energies. It’s similar to the way that a surfer gains speed when skimming down the face of a wave.
In addition to packing a high-powered punch, BELLA is renowned for its precision and control. “We’re forcing this laser beam into a 500 micron hole about 14 meters away, “ Leemans says. “The BELLA laser beam has sufficiently high pointing stability to allow us to use it.” Moreover, Leemans says, the laser pulse, which fires once a second, is stable to within a fraction of a percent. “With a lot of lasers, this never could have happened,” he adds.
In order to accelerate electrons to even higher energies—Leemans’ near-term goal is 10 giga-electron volts—the researchers will need to more precisely control the density of the plasma channel through which the laser light flows. In essence, the researchers need to create a tunnel for the light pulse that’s just the right shape to handle more-energetic electrons. Leemans says future work will demonstrate a new technique for plasma-channel shaping.
Multi-GeV electron beams with energy up to 4.2 GeV, 6% rms energy spread, 6 pC charge, and 0.3 mrad rms divergence have been produced from a 9-cm-long capillary discharge waveguide with a plasma density of ≈7×10^17 cm−3, powered by laser pulses with peak power up to 0.3 PW. Preformed plasma waveguides allow the use of lower laser power compared to unguided plasma structures to achieve the same electron beam energy. A detailed comparison between experiment and simulation indicates the sensitivity in this regime of the guiding and acceleration in the plasma structure to input intensity, density, and near-field laser mode profile.
SOURCE – Lawrence Berkeley Labs, Physical Review Letters