Scientists at Stanford and SLAC have created a silicon chip that can accelerate electrons using an infrared laser to deliver, in less than a hair’s width, the sort of energy boost that takes microwaves many feet.
Above – This image, magnified 25,000 times, shows a section of an accelerator-on-a-chip. The gray structures focus infrared laser light (shown in yellow and purple) on electrons flowing through the center channel. By packing 1,000 channels onto an inch-sized chip, Stanford researchers hope to accelerate electrons to 94 percent of the speed of light. (Image credit: Courtesy Neil Sapra)
The accelerator-on-a-chip demonstrated in Science is just a prototype, but Vuckovic said its design and fabrication techniques can be scaled up to deliver particle beams accelerated enough to perform cutting-edge experiments in chemistry, materials science and biological discovery that don’t require the power of a massive accelerator.
This will be for accelerators like taking computers from the mainframe era to the personal computer era.
Accelerator-on-a-chip technology could also lead to new cancer radiation therapies.
In a traditional accelerator, like the one at SLAC, engineers generally draft a basic design, then run simulations to physically arrange the microwave bursts to deliver the greatest possible acceleration. But microwaves measure 4 inches from peak to trough, while infrared light has a wavelength one-tenth the width of a human hair. That difference explains why infrared light can accelerate electrons in such short distances compared to microwaves. But this also means that the chip’s physical features must be 100,000 times smaller than the copper structures in a traditional accelerator. This demands a new approach to engineering based on silicon integrated photonics and lithography.
Vuckovic’s team solved the problem using inverse design algorithms that her lab has developed. These algorithms allowed the researchers to work backward, by specifying how much light energy they wanted the chip to deliver, and tasking the software with suggesting how to build the right nanoscale structures required to bring the photons into proper contact with the flow of electrons.
The design algorithm came up with a chip layout that seems almost otherworldly. Imagine nanoscale mesas, separated by a channel, etched out of silicon. Electrons flowing through the channel run a gantlet of silicon wires, poking through the canyon wall at strategic locations. Each time the laser pulses – which it does 100,000 times a second – a burst of photons hits a bunch of electrons, accelerating them forward. All of this occurs in less than a hair’s width, on the surface of a vacuum-sealed silicon chip, made by team members at Stanford.
The researchers want to accelerate electrons to 94 percent of the speed of light, or 1 million electron volts (1MeV), to create a particle flow powerful enough for research or medical purposes. This prototype chip provides only a single stage of acceleration, and the electron flow would have to pass through around 1,000 of these stages to achieve 1MeV. But that’s not as daunting at it may seem, said Vuckovic, because this prototype accelerator-on-a-chip is a fully integrated circuit. That means all of the critical functions needed to create acceleration are built right into the chip, and increasing its capabilities should be reasonably straightforward.
Miniaturizing particle accelerators
Particle accelerators are usually associated with large national facilities. Because photons are able to impart momentum to electrons, there are also efforts to develop laser-based particle accelerators. Sapra et al. developed an integrated particle accelerator using photonic inverse design methods to optimize the interaction between the light and the electrons. They show that an additional kick of around 0.9 kilo–electron volts (keV) can be given to a bunch of 80-keV electrons along just 30 micrometers of a specially designed channel. Such miniaturized dielectric laser accelerators could open up particle physics to a number of scientific disciplines.
Particle accelerators represent an indispensable tool in science and industry. However, the size and cost of conventional radio-frequency accelerators limit the utility and reach of this technology. Dielectric laser accelerators (DLAs) provide a compact and cost-effective solution to this problem by driving accelerator nanostructures with visible or near-infrared pulsed lasers, resulting in a 104 reduction of scale. Current implementations of DLAs rely on free-space lasers directly incident on the accelerating structures, limiting the scalability and integrability of this technology. We present an experimental demonstration of a waveguide-integrated DLA that was designed using a photonic inverse-design approach. By comparing the measured electron energy spectra with particle-tracking simulations, we infer a maximum energy gain of 0.915 kilo–electron volts over 30 micrometers, corresponding to an acceleration gradient of 30.5 mega–electron volts per meter. On-chip acceleration provides the possibility for a completely integrated mega–electron volt-scale DLA.
SOURCES- Stanford, Journal Science
Written By Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture.com