Linear particle accelerator

The linac within the Australian Synchrotron uses radio waves from a series of RF cavities at the start of the linac to accelerate the electron beam in bunches to energies of 100 MeV.

A linear particle accelerator (often shortened to linac) is a type of particle accelerator that accelerates charged subatomic particles or ions to a high speed by subjecting them to a series of oscillating electric potentials along a linear beamline. The principles for such machines were proposed by Gustav Ising in 1924,[1] while the first machine that worked was constructed by Rolf Widerøe in 1928 [2] at the RWTH Aachen University.Linacs have many applications: they generate X-rays and high energy electrons for medicinal purposes in radiation therapy, serve as particle injectors for higher-energy accelerators, and are used directly to achieve the highest kinetic energy for light particles (electrons and positrons) for particle physics.

The design of a linac depends on the type of particle that is being accelerated: electrons, protons or ions. Linacs range in size from a cathode ray tube (which is a type of linac) to the 3.2-kilometre-long (2.0 mi) linac at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California.

Construction and operation

Animation showing how a linear accelerator works. In this example the particles accelerated (red dots) are assumed to have a positive charge. The animation shows a single particle being accelerated each cycle; in actual linacs a large number of particles are injected and accelerated each cycle. The graph V(x) shows the electrical potential along the axis of the accelerator at each point in time. The polarity of the RF voltage reverses as the particle passes through each electrode, so when the particle crosses each gap the electric field (E, arrows) has the correct direction to accelerate it. The action is shown slowed down enormously.
Quadrupole magnets surrounding the linac of the Australian Synchrotron are used to help focus the electron beam
Building covering the 2 mile (3.2 km) beam tube of the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) at Menlo Park, California, the second most powerful linac in the world. It has about 80,000 accelerating electrodes and could accelerate electrons to 50 GeV

See animated diagram. A linear particle accelerator consists of the following parts:

  • A straight hollow pipe vacuum chamber which contains the other components. It is evacuated with a vacuum pump so that the accelerated particles will not collide with air molecules. The length will vary with the application. If the device is used for the production of X-rays for inspection or therapy the pipe may be only 0.5 to 1.5 meters long. If the device is to be an injector for a synchrotron it may be about ten meters long. If the device is used as the primary accelerator for nuclear particle investigations, it may be several thousand meters long.
  • The particle source (S) which produces the charged particles which the machine accelerates. The design of the source depends on the particle that is being accelerated. Electrons are generated by a cold cathode, a hot cathode, a photocathode, or radio frequency (RF) ion sources. Protons are generated in an ion source, which can have many different designs. If heavier particles are to be accelerated, (e.g., uranium ions), a specialized ion source is needed. The source has its own high voltage supply to inject the particles into the beamline.
  • Extending along the pipe from the source is a series of open-ended cylindrical electrodes (C1, C2, C3, C4), whose length increases progressively with the distance from the source. The particles from the source pass through these electrodes. The length of each electrode is determined by the frequency and power of the driving power source and the particle to be accelerated, so that the particle passes through each electrode in exactly one-half cycle of the accelerating voltage. The mass of the particle has a large effect on the length of the cylindrical electrodes; for example an electron is considerably lighter than a proton and so will generally require a much smaller section of cylindrical electrodes as it accelerates very quickly.
  • A target (not shown) with which the particles collide, located at the end of the accelerating electrodes. If electrons are accelerated to produce X-rays then a water cooled tungsten target is used. Various target materials are used when protons or other nuclei are accelerated, depending upon the specific investigation. Behind the target are various detectors to detect the particles resulting from the collision of the incoming particles with the atoms of the target. Many linacs serve as the initial accelerator stage for larger particle accelerators such as synchrotrons and storage rings, and in this case after leaving the electrodes the accelerated particles enter the next stage of the accelerator.
  • An electronic oscillator and amplifier (G) which generates a radio frequency AC voltage of high potential (usually thousands of volts) which is applied to the cylindrical electrodes. This is the accelerating voltage which produces the electric field which accelerates the particles. As shown, opposite phase voltage is applied to successive electrodes. A high power accelerator will have a separate amplifier to power each electrode, all synchronized to the same frequency.

As shown in the animation, the oscillating voltage applied to alternate cylindrical electrodes has opposite polarity (180° out of phase), so adjacent electrodes have opposite voltages. This creates an oscillating electric field (E) in the gap between each pair of electrodes, which exerts force on the particles when they pass through, imparting energy to them by accelerating them. The particle source injects a group of particles into the first electrode once each cycle of the voltage, when the charge on the electrode is opposite to the charge on the particles. The electrodes are made the correct length so that the accelerating particles take exactly one-half cycle to pass through each electrode. Each time the particle bunch passes through an electrode, the oscillating voltage changes polarity, so when the particles reach the gap between electrodes the electric field is in the correct direction to accelerate them. Therefore the particles accelerate to a faster speed each time they pass between electrodes; there is little electric field inside the electrodes so the particles travel at a constant speed within each electrode.

The particles are injected at the right time so that the oscillating voltage differential between electrodes is maximum as the particles cross each gap. If the peak voltage applied between the electrodes is volts, and the charge on each particle is elementary charges, the particle gains an equal increment of energy of electron volts when passing through each gap. Thus the output energy of the particles is

electron volts, where is the number of accelerating electrodes in the machine.

At speeds near the speed of light, the incremental velocity increase will be small, with the energy appearing as an increase in the mass of the particles. In portions of the accelerator where this occurs, the tubular electrode lengths will be almost constant. Additional magnetic or electrostatic lens elements may be included to ensure that the beam remains in the center of the pipe and its electrodes. Very long accelerators may maintain a precise alignment of their components through the use of servo systems guided by a laser beam.

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