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Q & A: What can I do with a particle accelerator?

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Most recent answer: 01/22/2015
Q:
Well, I was looking around on the internet about particle accelerators, how to build one etc. I understand all of that but one thing I haven't been able to find was what exactly can you use them for? I was thinking of something to do for the CREST award (bronze) and I was planning to build a particle accelerator so I was wondering if you could tell me what things you can use them for (with this small homemade one) and how I could know if it works or not.
- Nicole (age 12)
England
A:

Particle accelerators do two basic things - they shoot particles (obviously), but they also emit radiation. If you're making your own accelerator, then you'll probably end up with a small linear accelerator which shoots electrons. You probably don't want to do anything with radiation, so I'll just talk about the particles.

First, to tell if your accelerator is working or not, you'll probably want to make a simple particle detector. There are many ways to do so, but . Aim your accelerator at the detector and see if you can see the tracks it leaves.

Shooting particles is good whenever you want to bombard anything with tiny fast bits of matter. Some real applications for this technology include proton therapy, in which particle beams are used to essentially shoot cancer cells until they die, and electron microscopy, in which you bounce electrons off (or through) a sample and see where they go. This allows you to see things which are too small to see with visible light. Another application is in particle colliders, which are used to probe the smallest areas of existence that we currently have access to.

You could probably use your accelerator to try and kill some bacteria in a petri dish, which is kind of exciting. But if you want something more scientific you could use a magnet and your particle detector to show how you can control the paths of the electrons.

Honestly though, you can't do too much with a homemade accelerator unless you set up a vacuum system too. Coming in contact with air makes electrons slow down and stop pretty quickly. I suspect the detector tracks you see will be pretty short. But either way it should be an education experience. Have fun!

Matt Z.


(published on 01/22/2015)

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