Science and Technology

Técnico researchers participate in the first ever successful acceleration of electrons in a proton-driven plasma wave

The acceleration of electrons in a proton-driven plasma wave, which can drastically reduce the size of particle accelerators, was first proposed in the 1970s and early experiences occurred in the early 1980s at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Research has grown substantially during the following decades. Nature Magazine reports in its current issue the first ever acceleration of electrons in a proton-driven plasma wave. The article is based on the AWAKE (Advanced WAKEfield Experiment) collaboration at CERN, which aims to develop a compact accelerator for accelerating electrons to very high energies over short distances. The research involves more than 15 institutions, including Técnico, which is represented by researchers from GoLP, which is part of Institute for Plasmas and Nuclear Fusion (IPFN) at IST.

This work, published on August 29, is the first experimental demonstration of electron acceleration in a proton-driven plasma wave. “It’s the first experimental demonstration of this idea and a proof of concept”, says professor Jorge Vieira, one of the researchers involved in this project. “The article shows that plasma waves excited by a proton beam can even accelerate electrons to high energies, something that has never been tried before. The energy gain is still lower when compared with other plasma acceleration experiments, but the main conclusion is that the idea works”, adds the professor. “This research has a tremendous potential and we are only now starting to explore it” he says.

The participation of Técnico researchers, which began in 2010, was made mainly through theory, computational simulations and experiments. The team is composed of professor Jorge Vieira, professor Luís Oliveira e Silva (team coordinator), Nelson Lopes (Técnico researcher), Ricardo Fonseca (professor at ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa), Mariana Moreira and Anton Helm (PhD students at Técnico). “Our contributions allowed us to guide and plan the experimental development, such as to determine which plasmas should be used, their densities and length, so that these observations could be successful”, explains the professor.

Accelerating particles to greater energies over shorter distances is crucial to achieving high-energy collisions that physicists use to probe the fundamental laws of nature and may also open up completely new industrial and medical applications. “These results open the door a new type of particle accelerators, smaller than traditional accelerators but with the same power, suitable for new discoveries in fundamental physics”, highlights the researcher at GoLP. “Achieving this goal is important because we are entering the limits of conventional accelerator technologies” he adds, noting that the size of conventional accelerators can’t grow indefinitely, thus highlighting the “disruptive potential” of this research.

This research has a tremendous potential. According to professor Jorge Vieira “the effort that has been made may open the door to accelerators appropriated for scientific research at universities and hospitals, thus leading to important changes”.