Richmond (VA) – There’s an article on NewScientist.com that might seem astounding. It basically states that laser-based, desktop-sized “atom smashers” could be as effective or more at probing the secrets of the universe as the $9 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, but for a tiny fraction of the cost.
The LHC is a 27 kilometer underground tunnel comprised of over $2 billion worth of equipment (some of which took 20 years of development to produce) to accelerate particles from 450 GeV to 7000 GeV. It is currently broken and will not be up and running until this coming Spring at the earliest. Moving from 450 GeV to 7000 GeV equates to a journey 17 million times around the circle (450 million kilometers) before finally reaching impact speeds.
This large size was due to the limits of the accelerating vehicle, in this case enormously powerful magnets. The idea has come to scientists, however, that it doesn’t have to be big to be powerful or fast.
There’s a fully technical explanation in the article, but basically the method would used plasma. In plasma, positively charged ions exist separately from negatively charged electrons (due to the extreme heat).
The team proposes shooting a high intensity laser across the plasma, which in turn pushes the electrons away. As they go away they create an “electron void” in the ion portion of the plasma which then begins to attract the electrons again once the laser is switch off. However, because they will accelerate at extreme speeds toward the ions, they will overshoot their mark creating another void.
The result is a successive series of wave-like patterns with varying electron densities. The electrons at “just the right point” will gain extreme velocity and momentum, creating a potential for desirable atom smashing effects.
This process takes place in a relatively small area, with only variations in the laser’s intensity, duration and shape being required. The end result is a micro-laboratory where velocities equal to or greater than those achievable at the LHC could be created. And, for a tiny fraction of the cost.
Here we see yet another example of why it’s worth waiting a while (even a couple decades) before deciding on some policy that will end up costing billions. This is especially true with the rate at which science is advancing today.
Science will ultimately show us more cost effective ways to solve problems like these, as well as energy problems, greenhouse gas and global warming problems, and pretty much everything that is thrown at it, if given time to grow and room to breathe.