“Accelerator on a chip” boosted by large private investment

Illustration of the accelerator-on-a-chip (see text for details) © J. Breuer, FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg

Illustration of the accelerator-on-a-chip (see text for details) © J. Breuer, FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg

The “accelerator on a chip” project has received an investment of $13.5 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Image: Electrons are accelerated by the laser field above the accelerator-on-a-chip. The teeth of the grating are on the sub-micron scale, which requires that also the electron beam be controlled on these length scales. This novel concept could enable the construction of miniaturized accelerators, with applications in numerous scientific fields (Credit: J. Breuer, FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg)

The “accelerator on a chip” project (video), to which EPFL is a partner, is essentially an effort to shrink down laser-driven particle accelerators with the hope of making them smaller and cheaper. The project brings together an international team of experts in the fields of accelerator physics, laser physics, nanophotonics and nanofabrication. The team aims to develop the next-generation of compact laser-driven accelerators, with the first fully functional and scalable working prototype to be completed within the next five years. The first publications in this line of research appeared in Physical Review Letters and Nature in 2013.

The new technology uses commercial ultrafast lasers to overcome two major challenges: size and cost. By exploiting compact particle and photon sources, and miniaturizing the acceleration process, the new technology addresses current infrastructure challenges to make accelerators smaller. Second, it uses low-cost production techniques that will extend its use and application to additional fields and communities, maximizing its impact. “The impact of shrinking accelerators can be compared to the evolution of computers that once occupied entire rooms and now can be worn around your wrist. This advance means we may be able to expand particle acceleration into areas and communities that previously had no access to such resources,” says Professor Peter Hommelhoff, co-principal investigator on from Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU).

Building on the first successful experiments performed at Stanford University and at FAU, the international team will now take the next step: demonstrating all the components required to build an accelerator on a completely new technology. This momentous task will involve nanofabrication of photonic chip structures in cleanroom laboratories, and novel, miniaturized electron sources.

Meanwhile, university partners will develop high-intensity photonic structures for the laser beam feed. EPFL’s Particle Accelerator Physics Laboratory (LPAP) will be contributing to this part through SwissFEL, Switzerland's 700-meter-long X-ray free-electron laser currently being built at the Paul Scherrer Institute. The SwissFel accelerator has been designed to generate ultra-bright electron beams, where up to one billion electrons can be accelerated close to the speed of light and focused down to a diameter of a few micrometres, i.e. less than the width of a thread from a spider’s web. These high-energy beams will allow the scientists to probe the physics of acceleration on a chip at higher energies and simultaneously higher particle density.

“The potential impact of this development on accelerator driven sciences, like the life and material sciences, high-energy particle physics, but also medical applications of accelerators is enormous,” says Professor Leonid Rivkin, director of LPAP (EPFL).

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was founded by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty “to create positive change for future generations.” The foundation invests in basic research that fuels the kind of innovation that can significantly impact future generations. Today, it is one of the world’s largest private funders in science, including scientific research and technology development, with investments of over $1.15 billion over the past 15 years.

“The accelerator-on-a-chip has terrific scientists pursuing a great idea,” says Dr Robert Kirshner Chief Program Officer of Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “We’ll know they’ve succeeded when they advance from the proof-of-concept to a working prototype. This research is risky, but the Moore Foundation is not afraid of risk when a novel approach holds the potential for a big advance in science. Making things small to produce immense returns is what Gordon Moore did for microelectronics.”

Along with the leads at Stanford University and Friedrich-Alexander University, the international collaboration includes three national laboratories: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, CA; Deutsches Elektronen- Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany; and the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Villigen, Switzerland. It also includes five universities and one industry partner: University of California Los Angeles, Purdue University, University of Hamburg, EPFL, the Technical University of Darmstadt, and Tech-X Corporation.