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Stanford’s ‘accelerator on a chip’ could revolutionize medical care

SLAC’s full-size accelerator, dubbed the LINAC, relies on klystrons — specialized vacuum tubes that act as radio frequency amplifiers — to generate high-energy electron beams used in the facility’s experiments. They also generate a whole bunch of radiation, which is why the beam is buried in a concrete bunker two stories underground.

Electrons are generated at one end of the line and then accelerated to 99.99999 percent of the speed of light, as they travel down the 2-mile long instrument. They are also infused with up to 15 GeV of additional energy. When these subatomic particles smack into their targets — in this case, either sample material or the electron’s bizarro twin, the positron — they really pack a wallop.

The problems with this setup is cost and availability; there are only a handful on the planet, because they’re so insanely expensive to build, maintain and operate. As such, the demand for the machines dramatically overshadows the amount of time that the facility can operate. Today, the linac operates on average 24 hours a day, five days a week, with the off days dedicated to maintenance. SLAC’s services are in such high demand that only one in six experiments are accepted and those that do get the nod are then expected to adhere to a brutally strict schedule.

What if, instead of relying on just a few mammoth linear accelerators around the planet, the scientific community could shrink these devices to the size of a football field? That would enable them to be installed in the basements of most universities and research hospitals, exponentially increasing their availability. Well, in 2015 — and thanks to a $13.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — Stanford and SLAC began work on shrinking a particle accelerator from a scale of miles to meters. They call it the “accelerator on a chip” (ACHIP) project.