If you were asked to imagine a particle accelerator, you would probably picture a high-energy electron beam contained within a kilometers-long facility, manned by hundreds of engineers and researchers. You probably wouldn’t think of a chip smaller than a fingernail, yet that’s exactly what the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s Accelerator on a Chip International Program (ACHIP) has accomplished.
The Stanford University team developed a device that uses lasers to accelerate electrons along etched channels on a silicon chip. The idea for a miniature accelerator has existed since the laser’s invention in 1960, but the requirement for a device to generate electrons made the early proof-of-concepts difficult to manufacture in bulk.
The electromagnetic waves produced by lasers have much shorter wavelengths than the microwaves used in full-scale accelerators, allowing them to accelerate electrons in a far more confined space – channels can be shrunk to three one-thousandths of a millimeter wide. In order to couple the lasers and electrons properly, the light waves must push the particles in the correct direction with as much energy as possible. This also requires the device to generate electrons and transmit them via the proper channel. With an accelerator engraved in silicon, multiple components can fit on the same chip.
Within the latest prototype, a laser hits a grating from above the chip, directing the energy into a waveguide. The electromagnetic waves radiate out, moving with the waveguide until they reach an etched pattern that creates a focused electromagnetic field. As electrons move through the field, they accelerate and gain energy.
The results showed that the prototype could boost the electrons by 915 electron volts, equivalent to the electrons gaining 30 million electron volts over a meter. While the change is not on the scale of SLAC, it does scale up more easily since researchers can fit multiple accelerating paths onto future designs without the bulk of a full-scale accelerator. The chip exists as a single stage of the accelerator, allowing more researchers to conduct experiments without the need to reserve space in expensive full-scale particle accelerators.