Scientist at Stanford University say they're closing in on the design of a new particle accelerator 500 times as powerful as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe but at just a fraction of the size of the LHC, which sits in 17 miles of underground tunnels.
The LHC needs all those miles to accelerate particles to near the speed of light before smashing them together.
However, researchers at Stanford, writing in the journal Nature, have described a new kind of atom smasher, known as a Wakefield accelerator, that could provide scientists with compact particle accelerator of a size any university campus could accommodate.
Current accelerators like the LHC, which revealed the existence of the Higgs boson, require miles of room and immense amount of power to generate the electric fields need to propel particles at high and high speeds.
But there's a limit, says study co-author Mark Hogan, a physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator facility in Menlo Park, Calif.
"We've reached a limit on what we can realistically afford to build in terms of size and cost," he says.
Hogan and his colleagues have been working on ways to boost energies in a collider without having to scale up it size or power consumption.
In their prototype, a plasma of lithium gas consisting of atoms stripped of their electrons was created in a chamber just 11.8 inches long.
Repeated bursts of tightly focused beams of electrons were sent through the plasma, creating movements of particles within the chamber something akin to the "wake around a boat," Hogan says.
That generates a massively powerful electric field within the wake that successfully accelerated huge numbers of electrons and held them in a tight focus.
With each burst of electrons creating energy that can be transferred to the next burst in ever-increasing amounts, resulting in ever-higher particle speeds, the result could be a compact collider, experts say.
"Because the plasma wave accelerated electrons 500 times faster than SLAC's main particle accelerator, the result might herald a new generation of compact 'plasma afterburners' that could boost the energy of conventional particle accelerators and potentially reduce the skyrocketing cost of high-energy physics machinery," Mike Downer, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an article accompanying the study in Nature.
Although the principle of particle wakefield acceleration has been understood for decades, the Stanford effort is the first practical demonstration of the principle's ability to boost particles to the high energies desired for research.