Why This Foundation Is Betting on a Miniature Particle Accelerator

 The control room of an early particle accelerator, circa 1960. photo: Everett Historical/shutterstoc

The control room of an early particle accelerator, circa 1960. photo: Everett Historical/shutterstoc

Particle accelerators, those massive underground loops that probably come to mind, are instrumental in studying in fundamental physics. They’re also used in medical applications, tech manufacturing, and lots of other basic and applied research. 

If you could shrink them down to something powerful that you could place on your desk, it would make them far more affordable and accessible, and open up new applications and experiments in a range of fields. That is a very big "if," for a very big machine, with some serious hurdles still in the way. 

That kind of challenge is like catnip to science philanthropies like the Moore Foundation. In particular, the idea of making real something that could have cascading effects that could be used by many scientists in many ways, is the kind of payoff funders dream of achieving with their relatively small but flexible grantmaking budgets. We’ve seen it in the foundation’s support for the Thirty Meter Telescope, techniques in data science, and advanced imaging projects.

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Moore's funding to shrink particle accelerators is through a five-year grant that started in 2015 for $13.5 million. It’s called the Accelerator-on-a-Chip International Project, and the grantee is the Stanford Department of Physics, although the effort involves an international partnership of universities and labs. 

The basic idea behind the project is that particle accelerators, which have been around since the 1930s, are usually very large circular or linear structures. They use magnetic and electrical fields to speed up and target beams of particles, sometimes smashing them together to shed light on the nature of matter, space and time. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, for example, is five miles in diameter. Even the smaller linear accelerators used in medical settings, like those for diagnostics and cancer treatments, are still cumbersome and expensive. 

The team of scientists funded by Moore is working to develop a particle accelerator that uses lasers to do the job. The idea has been around for a long time, but physicists can now take advantage of recent developments in nanofabrication and solid state lasers. Two teams independently published research in 2013 showing it could be possible, inspiring the project and the grant. They ultimately hope to shrink such devices down to the size of a shoebox, and have basically established what needs to happen, but they don’t yet know how to get over some of the big challenges. 

This grant is striking due to its length, amount, and the long-shot nature of the project. When we talked last year with Moore’s Chief Program Officer for Science Robert Kirshner, he described their grants as falling in a spectrum between things that are basically low-risk, and others that are pretty speculative. This one probably falls into the latter category. But if the team pulls it off, Moore’s got its stamp on big win that could unlock all kinds of new possibilities in health care and research alike. 

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