An innovative technique to accelerate particles could lead to smaller, cheaper and more energetic particle smashers.

Publishing in Nature today, researchers working at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, have shown that an experimental way of accelerating electrons, known as plasma wakefield acceleration, is efficient enough to power particle accelerators.

The technique, which has been under development for more than 30 years, drives electron bunches to higher energies by making them 'surf' on the electromagnetic wake of their predecessors. The authors of the latest study succeeded in generating an energy gain per unit length that is around 1,000 times higher compared with existing accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

But while the LHC is ring-shaped, with particles circling many times, the plasma technology would be especially useful at 'linear' accelerators, which push particles down a straight pipe. Researchers say that with further development, plasma wakefield technology could shrink the proposed International Linear Collider — a machine that some physicists hope will succeed the LHC — from around 30 kilometers to just 4.5 kilometers long. 

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This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on November 5, 2014.