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Physics Section Activities: Particle Accelerators 


In 1929, Robert Van de Graaff demonstrated a high voltage machine to accelerate particles. This accelerating machine was developed further for use in "atom-smashing" experiments.


It was quickly recognized that this accelerating machine had great potential for developing industrial and medical applications. Now, more than seven decades later, accelerators of many different designs have been developed.

The energy of the utilized particles ranges from a few electronvolts (eV) up to nearly teraelectronvolts (1000 billion eV) in the case of colliding particles. Electrons, protons, and all kind of charged particles are accelerated to produce X-rays, neutrons, charged particle beams and radioisotopes for use in research and technology.

Accelerators can vary in size between one small enough to sit on a table, up to huge machines tend of kilometres in length. They can be linear or circular, can operate in continuous or pulsed modes, and utilize many techniques to accelerate ion beams. These modern applications are as manifold as the variety of the accelerators.

By far, the greatest number of commercial applications of accelerators are in materials processing (e.g. ceramics, insulators, metals and plastics) and in medicine.

The most common accelerator applications include:

  • Medical applications, such as diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

  • Mineral and oil prospecting, using neutrons produced with small accelerators.

  • Charged particle beams for processing semiconductor chips.

  • Intense sources of X-rays for sterilization of medical equipment and food products.

  • Charged particle beams for materials sciences analysis and radioisotope production.

  • Radiocarbon dating.

The over 15 000 accelerators in use around the world today make an essential contribution to our well-being, and to many products used in daily life. Over 97% of these accelerators are used for dedicated commercial applications. Only a small percentage (a few hundred) are used for scientific research, mainly at universities, research institutes and international organizations.

The knowledge, and technological spin-offs gained from these research accelerators, drive the development of commercial applications for socio-economic benefit. The physics programme supports research topics and accelerator projects in Member States. With this support, highly intense sources of synchrotron radiation, which is produced by high energy electron accelerators, will become accessible for many more Member States to utilize. Education and training are necessary to provide sufficient scientific, and technical knowledge on nuclear techniques involved in the use of accelerators. The Physics Section supports programmes on education, and knowledge building.