synchrotron radiation, in physics, electromagnetic radiation emitted by high-speed electrons spiraling along the lines of force of a magnetic field (see magnetism). Depending on the electron's energy and the strength of the magnetic field, the maximum intensity will occur as radio waves, visible light, or X rays. The emission is a consequence of the constant acceleration experienced by the electrons as they move in nearly circular orbits; according to Maxwell's equations, all accelerated charged particles emit electromagnetic radiation. Although predicted much earlier, synchrotron radiation was first observed as a glow associated with protons orbiting in high-energy particle accelerators, such as the synchrotron. In astronomy, synchrotron radiation has been suggested as the mechanism for producing strong celestial radio sources like the Crab Nebula (see radio astronomy). Synchrotron radiation is employed in a host of applications, ranging from solid-state physics to medicine. As excellent producers of X rays, synchrotron sources offer unique probes of the semiconductors that lie at the heart of the electronics industry. Both ultraviolet radiation and X rays generated by synchrotrons are also employed in the treatment of diseases, especially certain forms of skin cancer.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.