How Atom Smashers Work

An atom smasher, or a particle accelerator, provides scientists with a way to study the structure of the atom. Here's how the accelerator

Atom smasher is the much more descriptive name given to a particle accelerator. Both of these terms are telling. Atom smashers do, in fact, smash atoms. They do this by accelerating a part of an atom (particle) to high speeds and then targeting another atom's nucleus. Without these machines, scientists would not be able to study these tiny pieces of matter that are the fundamental building blocks of our world and universe.

To begin, it is important to note that the particles used to smash the atoms must have a charge. In the most basic sense, these particles are protons (positive charge) and electrons (negative charge). Electrons are used most commonly, as well as helium and hydrogen ions. An ion is an atom, or group of atoms, that has a charge. It is, in effect, a charged version of an otherwise neutral atom.

To smash an atom, the electron or the ion is released at an extremely high speed (approaching the speed of light) into an atom or molecule (atoms bonded together). This causes the target to break apart. Various instruments, including computers and spectrometers, record and measure the behavior of the various fragments. These measurements give scientists a clearer understanding not only of the structure of atoms, but of the way they work.

There are two main types of particle accelerator: linear and circular. The linear atom smasher uses a straight line, a tube, as its main mode of acceleration. The circular version of the atom smasher accelerates particles primarily by use of a tubular ring (although some circular accelerators make use of a short, straight tube to introduce the particle into the ring). All tubes are made of copper, for its ability to effectively conduct charged particles. The area inside the tube is a vacuum, or space with the dust and air removed.

In both types of atom smashers, the particles are pushed along by electromagnetic waves. These tiny waves act as other waves do. If one could look at them, they would appear to "roll," the same as waves in the ocean. Like miniscule surfers, the particles are propelled through the tubes on electromagnetic waves. The waves are created by mechanisms called Klystrons. The circular accelerator adds the use of electromagnets strategically placed at various points around the ring to create a field that causes the particles to move at an increasingly rapid pace.

When the particles are moving rapidly enough (almost at the speed of light) they are encouraged to collide with the target atom or molecule. In a linear accelerator, the electromagnetic beam carrying the particles is aimed at the target. In a circular accelerator, when the particles acquire the desired energy (derived from the increasing speed of the particles) the target is placed in the path of the traveling particles.

Atom smashers are generally massive. The prototype of the circular particle accelerator was called a cyclotron. The cyclotron was merely four inches across. In 1929, this was the first particle accelerator invented. Now, however, a circular particle accelerator typically measures ten miles square. A typical linear accelerator, by contrast, is about 3 miles long. That's still quite large. Both accelerator types are kept underground.

While the use of particle accelerators is mainly that of research, the technology that drives these machines is used in electronics that use cathode ray tubes, such as computer monitors and televisions. Additionally this field of research helps in areas of industry and medicine. And someday, perhaps the study of atoms using particle accelerators will ultimately help us unlock the secrets of the universe.

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