The synchrotron is an improvement over the cyclotron where the particles travel in a spiral pattern. A cyclotron uses a constant magnetic field and a constant-frequency applied electric field. (One of these is varied in the
synchrocyclotron). Both of these fields are varied in the synchrotron to change the path from a spiral to a circle. By carefully making the fields bigger as the particles gain energy, the width of the circular path can be kept the same as the machine accelerates the particles. This allows the vacuum chamber for the particles to be a large thin circular pipe torus (donut shape). It is easier to use some straight sections between the bending magnets and some bent sections within the magnets giving the torus the shape of a round-cornered polygon. A path that acts like a very large circle can be constructed using simple straight and curved pipe segments, unlike the disc-shaped chamber of the cyclotron type devices. The shape also requires the use of multiple magnets to bend the particle beams. Straight sections are required at spacings around a ring for both radiofrequency cavities, and in third generation setups space is allowed for insertion of energy extraction devices such as wigglers and undulators. Most synchrotrons use two types of magnets: dipole magnets to bend the particle beam and quadrupole magnets to focus the beam.
The maximum energy that a cyclic accelerator can impart is typically limited by the strength of the magnetic field(s) and the minimum radius (maximum
curvature) of the particle path. So, over time, physicist have built accelerators with bigger magnets and larger circles to reach higher particle energy levels.
The interior of the
Australian Synchrotron facility. Dominating the image is the
storage ring, showing the optical diagnostic beamline
at front right. In the middle of the storage ring is the booster synchrotron and
In a cyclotron, the maximum radius is quite limited as the particles start at the center and spiral outward. So, the entire path must be a self-supporting disc-shaped vacuum chamber. Since the radius is limited, the power of the machine becomes limited by the strength of the magnetic field. In the case of an ordinary electromagnet the field strength is limited by the saturation of the core (when all magnetic domains are lined up the same way, the field cannot not be further increased to any practical extent). The arrangement of the single pair of magnets the full width of the device also limits the economic size of the device.
Synchrotrons overcome these limits, using a narrow beam pipe which can be surrounded by much smaller and more tightly focusing magnets. The ability of this device to accelerate particles is limited by the fact that the particles must be charged to be accelerated at all, but charged particles under acceleration emit photons (light particles), which makes them lose energy. The limiting beam energy is reached when the energy lost to the lateral (bending) acceleration required to maintain the beam path in a circle equals the energy added each cycle. More powerful accelerators are built by using large radius paths and by using more numerous and more powerful
microwave cavities to accelerate the particle beam between corners. Lighter particles (such as electrons) lose a larger fraction of their energy when turning. Practically speaking, the energy of electron/positron accelerators is limited by this radiation loss, while it does not play a significant role in the dynamics of proton or ion accelerators. The energy of those is limited strictly by the strength of magnets and by the cost.