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Linear particle accelerator

A linear particle accelerator (often shortened to linac) is a type of particle accelerator that greatly increases the velocity of charged subatomic particles or ions by subjecting the charged particles to a series of oscillating electric potentials along a linear beamline; this method of particle acceleration was invented in 1928 by Rolf Widerøe.[1]

Linacs have many applications, from the generation of X-rays for medicinal purposes, to being an injector for a higher-energy accelerators, to the investigation of the properties of subatomic particles. The design of a linac depends on the type of particle that is being accelerated: electrons, protons or ions. They range in size from a cathode ray tube to the 2-mile (3.2 km) long linac at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California.

Construction and operation
Schema of a linear accelerator

A linear particle accelerator consists of the following elements:

The particle source. The design of the source depends on the particle that is being moved. 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.
A high voltage source for the initial injection of particles.
A hollow pipe vacuum chamber. 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.
Within the chamber, electrically isolated cylindrical electrodes are placed, whose length varies with the distance along the pipe. The length of each electrode is determined by the frequency and power of the driving power source and the nature of the particle to be accelerated, with shorter segments near the source and longer segments near the target. 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. Likewise, because its mass is so small, electrons have much less kinetic energy than protons at the same speed. Because of the possibility of electron emissions from highly charged surfaces, the voltages used in the accelerator have an upper limit, so this can't be as simple as just increasing voltage to match increased mass.
One or more sources of radio frequency energy, used to energize the cylindrical electrodes. A very high power accelerator will use one source for each electrode. The sources must operate at precise power, frequency and phase appropriate to the particle type to be accelerated to obtain maximum device power.

Quadrupole magnets surrounding the linac of the Australian Synchrotron are used to help focus the electron beam

An appropriate target. 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. For particle-to-particle collision investigations the beam may be directed to a pair of storage rings, with the particles kept within the ring by magnetic fields. The beams may then be extracted from the storage rings to create head on particle collisions.

As the particle bunch passes through the tube it is unaffected (the tube acts as a Faraday cage), while the frequency of the driving signal and the spacing of the gaps between electrodes are designed so that the maximum voltage differential appears as the particle crosses the gap. This accelerates the particle, imparting energy to it in the form of increased velocity. 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.

The Stanford University superconducting linear accelerator, housed on campus below the Hansen Labs until 2007. This facility is separate from SLAC

Linacs of appropriate design are capable of accelerating heavy ions to energies exceeding those available in ring-type accelerators, which are limited by the strength of the magnetic fields required to maintain the ions on a curved path. High power linacs are also being developed for production of electrons at relativistic speeds, required since fast electrons traveling in an arc will lose energy through synchrotron radiation; this limits the maximum power that can be imparted to electrons in a synchrotron of given size.

Linacs are also capable of prodigious output, producing a nearly continuous stream of particles, whereas a synchrotron will only periodically raise the particles to sufficient energy to merit a "shot" at the target. (The burst can be held or stored in the ring at energy to give the experimental electronics time to work, but the average output current is still limited.) The high density of the output makes the linac particularly attractive for use in loading storage ring facilities with particles in preparation for particle to particle collisions. The high mass output also makes the device practical for the production of antimatter particles, which are generally difficult to obtain, being only a small fraction of a target's collision products. These may then be stored and further used to study matter-antimatter annihilation.

Medical grade linacs accelerate electrons using a tuned-cavity waveguide, in which the RF power creates a standing wave. Some linacs have short, vertically mounted waveguides, while higher energy machines tend to have a horizontal, longer waveguide and a bending magnet to turn the beam vertically towards the patient. Medical linacs use monoenergetic electron beams between 4 and 25 MeV, giving an X-ray output with a spectrum of energies up to and including the electron energy when the electrons are directed at a high-density (such as tungsten) target. The electrons or X-rays can be used to treat both benign and malignant disease. The reliability, flexibility and accuracy of the radiation beam produced has largely supplanted cobalt therapy as a treatment tool. In addition, the device can simply be powered off when not in use; there is no source requiring heavy shielding – although prolonged use of high powered (>18 MeV) machines can induce a significant amount of radiation within the metal parts of the head of the machine after power to the machine has been removed (i.e. they become an active source and the necessary precautions must be observed).


The device length limits the locations where one may be placed.
A great number of driver devices and their associated power supplies are required, increasing the construction and maintenance expense of this portion.
If the walls of the accelerating cavities are made of normally conducting material and the accelerating fields are large, the wall resistivity converts electric energy into heat quickly. On the other hand superconductors have various limits and are too expensive for very large accelerators. Therefore, high energy accelerators such as SLAC, still the longest in the world (in its various generations), are run in short pulses, limiting the average current output and forcing the experimental detectors to handle data coming in short bursts.

Wake fields

The electrons from the klystron build up the driving field. The driven particles also generate a field, called the wakefield. For strong wakefields high frequencies are used, which also allow higher field strengths. A small dielectrically loaded waveguide or coupled cavity waveguides are used instead of large waveguides with small drift tubes.

At the end all fields are absorbed by a dummy load or cavity losses.

See also

Accelerator physics
Beam line
Compact Linear Collider
International Linear Collider
Los Alamos Neutron Science Center
List of particles
Particle accelerator
Particle beam
Particle physics
Quadrupole magnet
Superconducting Radio Frequency


^ Widerøe, R. (1928). (subscription required)Archiv Elektronik und Uebertragungstechnik 21: 387.

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