Researchers have developed a mini particle accelerator capable of holding on to a silicon chip. This advance promises to revolutionize the field of medicine.
There are several particle accelerators around the world. The largest and best known is the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. There is another near Stanford University: the 3.2 km long SLAC. The two instruments have the same objective: to probe the atomic and molecular structure of inorganic and biological materials. However, they do not work in quite the same way.
In these accelerators, the particles are transported by vacuum tubes and accelerated at incredibly high speeds. To do this, the LHC uses superconductive electromagnets, while the SLAC increases the speed of its particles by irradiating them with microwaves.
A mini accelerator
That said, what Stanford University researchers are proposing today is to minimize this incredible technology. The objective would then be quite different. If successful, we could build on it to develop new cancer radiotherapy therapies.
To take this example, a vacuum tube could be inserted into a patient and directed directly to a tumor. The electrons accelerated through this device could then be channeled through this tube to strike cancer cells directly without touching the healthy ones.
In this sense, the researchers have taken a big step forward. They explain indeed having developed a prototype capable of holding on a small silicon chip. Rather than using microwaves or magnets, they use infrared light here. A laser emits pulses 100,000 times per second, propelling photons which then strike the electrons to accelerate them. In this configuration, the electrons are projected through a vacuum-sealed channel thirty micrometers long thinner than a human hair.
However, this is only a prototype. So far, researchers have managed to generate 0.915 kiloelectronvolt (keV) of energy. They will have to reach a million electron volts (1MeV) to be able to accelerate the electrons to 94% of the speed of light. It is only on this condition that the chip can be used for medical purposes. The researchers are nonetheless confident, believing that they could get there before the end of the year.