Very Practical Particles

At the right intensity, a beam of subatomic particles produced in an accelerator can shrink a tumor, produce cleaner energy, detect suspicious cargo, purify drinking water, map a protein, design a new medicine, diagnose a disease, reduce nuclear waste, detect a fake work of art, ascertain the date of an archeological find, stuff a Christmas turkey and, of course, discover the mysteries of the universe.

By: Ángela Posada-Swafford
Photos: U.S. Department of Energy

When we hear about particle accelerators, most of us imagine huge, eye-catching machines like the Large Hadron Collider that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) uses to discover the fundamental structure of the cosmos. But in reality, there are more than 30,000 particle accelerators in the world, from portable ones to those the size of a room, that use less energy than giant devices. You can find them in hospitals, industrial plants, laboratories, ports and even ships on the high seas. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy, the market for accelerators exceeds 3.5 billion dollars annually and it is growing by 10% a year. Here is a sample of the ways particle accelerators are being used.


The Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the state of New York uses a combination of ultraviolet and infrared light to study the structure of the proteins involved in plaque formation in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Understanding these structures can help develop ways to prevent the disease’s progression. 


The Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory produces X-ray beams a billion times brighter than the Sun, offering unprecedented opportunities for cutting-edge research. The colliders and accelerators work by producing a stream of electrically charged subatomic particles, which are forced to travel in a vacuum of electromagnetic fields, giving them high speeds.


The particles used can include electrons, positrons, protons, and photons, among others. They can be handled directly or made to collide with each other or against a fixed target to produce other types of particles, such as neutrons, which, although devoid of an electrical charge, can be handled in bundles. New therapies under study include the use of particles heavier than protons, such as carbon ions, which are even more aggressive against cancer. Spallation Neutron Source.


Electron beams have proven effective in the purification of drinking water, the treatment of sewage, and the removal of pollutants in combustion gases. Irradiating water with electrons does not require chemical products and effectively destroys nanoparticles and traces of pharmaceuticals that conventional water treatments fail to remove completely.


Perhaps the most exotic uses of a particle accelerator can be found in art and archeology. Proton beams of four million electron volts delicately probe a wide variety of materials: jewels, ceramics, glass, alloys, coins, statues, oil paintings, and drawings. These studies offer information on the origin of the objects, the old formulas used to produce them, and the best ways to protect them. They also make it possible to detect if a work is real or a forgery. Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois.


Particle accelerators are used in mass spectrometry, working with ion beams to measure the concentration of radioisotopes. This method is very accurate because it counts the atoms one by one, instead of detecting their radioactive decay. It is also an important technology in geology and climatology and it is thought to have a superior sensitivity to dating objects up to 50,000 years old via Carbon 14 (equivalent to finding a grain of sugar inside a stadium full of it). SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University.


Artificial heart valves are made by bombarding the material with silver ions produced in an accelerator. During the development of a new drug, scientists must be able to see the architecture of the atoms inside a crystal in a protein. This crystallography takes place in accelerators that produce radiation beams from several parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which allow researchers to see how proteins react to molecular changes in the design stage of the drug.


A cargo ship can carry up to 8,000 steel containers to any port. In the United States, checking containers for weapons, bombs, or other materials placed by terrorists is accomplished with accelerators that produce X-rays. They examine trains loaded with recently arrived containers. Scientists and authorities are already working on the design of other systems, such as powerful neutron accelerators in situ, which allow the detection of radioactivity emitted by nuclear weapons. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University.