Project aims to develop more compact particle accelerators

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is aiming to develop more compact particle accelerators for commercial use in a range of industries.

The project, which is a collaboration with Siemens AG, will draw knowledge from STFC’s large-scale facilities such as the diamond light source synchrotron and the ISIS pulsed-neutron source.

‘There’s essentially two different aspects to making compact accelerators,’ Prof Susan Smith, STFC’s director of accelerator science and technology, told The Engineer: ‘Making the accelerator technology as a whole more compact and light but also targeting individual components to make them more efficient, because these things use energy like everything else.’

Healthcare applications, in particular, will be a key focus for the project. Proton accelerators have shown some success, for example, in treating childhood brain tumours. However, the facilities are extremely large and expensive, and therefore limited to a handful of hospitals across Europe.

‘If you can cheapen that and make it simpler you’ve got a chance of putting what is really state-of-the-art and sophisticated cancer therapy into more centres,’ Smith said.

In addition, the project will also investigate the feasibility of compact accelerators that can produce medical isotopes, which are almost exclusively produced in nuclear reactor power plants at present.

The compact accelerators developed in the course of the project will produce various output beams according to the application, including protons, neutrons, muons or X-rays. Indeed, the latter could be used in security applications for scanning cargo for illicit materials.  

‘You can basically look inside things and see what might be there that wouldn’t be otherwise traceable,’ Smith said. ‘They want quite compact systems so they can have them installed in ports or even take them and set them up in mobile units.’

The joint research agreement will initially be for a five-year period, although Smith admitted it could take up to 10 years to develop full working compact accelerators.

‘We can work with prototypes, but it has to be a commercially viable product in the end and that’s why it’s so important that we work with industry quite early on in the product development,’ she said.