»Industrial Particle Accelerators
This page describes the device that accelerates charge particles, commonly used in industry, science and medicine.
Particle accelerators are devices used to accelerate charged particles, usually electrons or protons, to increase their energy. The radiation produced by these high-energy particles is used for many kinds of research, medical applications, and by industry.
In 1928, Robert Van de Graaff demonstrated how a high-voltage device can accelerate charged particles, protons and electrons. That was the start of the development of a series of particle accelerators.
Accelerators use a combination of electric and magnetic fields to move atomic particles at higher and higher speeds before crashing them into pre-selected targets of high Z material to produce x-rays that then hit the target. The electric fields provide the particles with a series of jolts of energy to accelerate them. The magnetic fields steer the particles to the target.
This accelerator process was originally developed for use in “atom-smashing” experiments. A particle accelerator, or “atom-smasher,” can speed up a particle to or near the speed of light before it collides with a target. The atomic particles created by the collision as well as the radiation emitted are detected and analyzed. This information tells us about the particles that make up the atom and the forces that hold it together.
Researchers later found a number of practical applications using the same high energy particle beams.
More than 15,000 accelerators are in use around the world. More than 97% of accelerators are used in commercial applications, such as the creation of ceramics, insulators, and plastics. Accelerators of many different designs have been developed. Some common accelerator applications include:
Diagnosing and treating cancer
Locating oil and minerals in the earth
Processing semiconductor chips for computers
Sterilizing medical equipment and food products
Determining the age of materials through radiocarbon dating
Both the radiation produced during operation and the radioactive waste created from operation pose worker safety issues. During operations, accelerators produce x-rays. X-rays can be an external radiation hazard to those who work in close proximity to an accelerator.
One of the benefits of accelerators is that, unlike radioactive sources, they only produce radiation when they are operated. However, radioactive waste is produced during their operation. This waste is generally short-lived; decaying in less than one year and may be stored at laboratories or production facilities until it is no longer radioactive. An extremely small fraction of the waste can remain radioactive for more than one year.