In a remarkable scientific breakthrough, the world’s smallest particle accelerator has been successfully activated, opening up a realm of potential applications, including deploying these miniature accelerators in medical treatments.
This innovative device, known as a nanophotonic electron accelerator (NEA), is not much larger than a small coin and operates on a vastly different scale than traditional particle accelerators, such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The NEA employs microchip technology, incorporating a minuscule vacuum tube of thousands of tiny “pillars” that can accelerate electrons using focused laser beams.
The NEA’s main acceleration tube measures just 0.02 inches (0.5 millimeters) in length, which is a staggering 54 million times shorter than the massive 16.8-mile-long (27 kilometers) ring that comprises CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The inner tunnel of the NEA is only about 225 nanometers wide, a scale dwarfed by the thickness of a human hair, which ranges from 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers.
In a recent study published in the journal Nature, researchers from the Friedrich–Alexander University of Erlangen–Nuremberg (FAU) in Germany demonstrated the NEA’s capabilities by increasing the energy of accelerated electrons from 28.4-kilo electron volts to 40.7 keV, marking a remarkable 43% improvement. This marks the first successful activation of a nanophotonic electron accelerator, a concept initially proposed in 2015. It’s worth noting that Stanford University researchers have also achieved this feat with their miniature accelerator, although their results are still pending review.
Co-author of the study, Roy Shiloh, commented on this achievement, stating, “For the first time, we really can speak about a particle accelerator on a [micro]chip.”
While the energy levels achieved by the NEA are considerably lower than those produced by large-scale particle colliders like the LHC, this limitation serves a specific purpose. The NEA’s primary objective is to harness the energy emitted by the accelerated electrons for targeted medical treatments, potentially replacing more invasive forms of radiotherapy used for cancer treatment.
The ultimate goal is to integrate a particle accelerator into an endoscope, enabling precise radiotherapy delivery directly to affected areas within the body. However, researchers acknowledge that this goal is still a long-term endeavor.
The successful activation of the NEA represents a significant step forward in the fusion of particle physics and medical treatments, offering a glimpse of future innovations that may revolutionize cancer therapy and other medical interventions.