Particle accelerators have plenty to teach us about the mysterious forces and matter that makes up the universe, but these facilities aren't exactly portable, involving kilometers of tunnels and equipment. Now, researchers at Imperial College London have developed a new way to accelerate antimatter particles using common equipment already found in many labs, in a much smaller space.

Currently, facilities like CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Stanford's Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) are top of the class for particle physics. The LHC accelerates elementary particles down long tubes and smashes them into each other to produce and study new forms of matter and intriguing particles like the Higgs boson. The LCLS, meanwhile, is a powerful X-ray laser that can take images of nanoscale events like photosynthesis, create "mini-stars" in the lab, or boil water into a strange plasma state hotter than the core of the Earth. But these facilities aren't the most accessible.

"The technologies used in facilities like the Large Hadron Collider or the Linac Coherent Light Source have not undergone significant advances since their invention in the 1950s," says Aakash Sahai, author of the new study. "They are expensive to run, and it may be that we will soon have all we can get out of them. A new generation of compact, energetic and cheap accelerators of elusive particles would allow us to probe new physics – and allow many more labs worldwide to join the effort."

In order to develop these smaller and more practical accelerators, the Imperial College researchers have now used simulations and computer models to invent a new method of accelerating antimatter particles. The team says the system would be just a few centimeters long – a huge space saving compared to the several kilometers currently needed. That said, it would require a laser setup measuring 25 sq m (270 sq ft), but the team says this equipment is already installed in many physics labs.

The new method involves beaming lasers into plasma clouds in order to produce positrons – the antimatter equivalent of electrons – and accelerate them into a beam. By colliding a positron beam with an electron beam, far more annihilation events would take place, creating exotic particles like the Higgs boson at a much more rapid rate than the LHC is capable of. Plus, this is done in 1,000 times less space, the team says.

"With this new accelerator method, we could drastically reduce the size and the cost of antimatter acceleration," says Sahai. "What is now only possible by using large physics facilities at tens of million-dollar costs could soon be possible in ordinary physics labs."

These positron beams could also be put to work in testing the quality of aircraft parts and computer chips. Currently, faults are scanned for by X-ray and electron beams, so adding a positron beam to the quality control arsenal could help spot different kinds of risks.

At this stage, the idea for the technology remains theoretical, but the team is planning to conduct practical experiments soon.

The research was published in the Physical Review Journal for Accelerators and Beams.

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