Particle accelerators are helping us answer the big unsolved questions about physics, the universe and everything. Their main function is to smash particles together with energies so high that they re-create the physical conditions found in the universe right after the Big Bang. And then study what happens.

The accelerators we use today are technological marvels. And they are huge. Take for example CERNs Large Hadron Collider (LHC): With its 27 km circumference it is the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, and the largest and most complex experimental facility ever built. In fact its the largest single machine in the world. The key word here is BIG. So why is that important? Because so far the only efficient way to generate the necessary particle energies is to use long lines of electromagnets that accelerate the particles to enormous speeds.

Hints of Higgs from the Large Hadron Collider (Credit & Copyright: Maximilien Brice, CERN)

But now researchers at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford have reached an important milestone in the development of a completely new technology: Instead of magnets they want to use super hot gas, or plasma, to accelerate the particles. Erik Adli, an associate professor at the University of Oslo is a key participant in this research at SLAC. “This technology can give us much more compact, energy efficient and cheaper accelerators, several times more efficient than the ones we have today” he says. “The results we have now are a big step towards the use of plasma in accelerators”.

Eric Adli at work as a researcher at Stanford University (Photo: Brad Plummer,

If we could make cheap and compact particle accelerators, that “fit in a box”, it would be tremendously important for research in particle physics. And for the exploitation of this knowledge for industrial purposes. One very likely application would be new and cheaper machines for cancer radiation therapy. Another would be very compact light sources which can be used industrially for the development of smart materials. And probably there will be some applications that we can’t yet imagine.

Watch the talk from Cutting Edge 2015 below.