The early linear accelerators used high voltage to produce high-energy particles; a large static electric charge was built up, which produced an electric field along the length of an evacuated tube, and the particles acquired energy as they moved through the electric field. The Cockcroft-Walton accelerator produced high voltage by charging a bank of capacitors in parallel and then connecting them in series, thereby adding up their separate voltages. The Van de Graaff accelerator achieved high voltage by using a continuously recharged moving belt to deliver charge to a high-voltage terminal consisting of a hollow metal sphere. Today these two electrostatic machines are used in low-energy studies of nuclear structure and in the injection of particles into larger, more powerful machines. Linear accelerators can be used to produce higher energies, but this requires increasing their length.
Linear accelerators, in which there is very little radiation loss, are the most powerful and efficient electron accelerators; the largest of these, the Stanford linear accelerator (SLAC), completed in 1957, is 2 mi (3.2 km) long and produces 20-GeV—in particle physics energies are commonly measured in millions (MeV) or billions (GeV) of electron-volts (eV)—electrons. SLAC is now used, however, not for particle physics but to produce a powerful X-ray laser. Modern linear machines differ from earlier electrostatic machines in that they use electric fields alternating at radio frequencies to accelerate the particles, instead of using high voltage. The acceleration tube has segments that are charged alternately positive and negative. When a group of particles passes through the tube, it is repelled by the segment it has left and is attracted by the segment it is approaching. Thus the final energy is attained by a series of pushes and pulls. Recently, linear accelerators have been used to accelerate heavy ions such as carbon, neon, and nitrogen.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.