Texas Company Creating Tiny Particle Accelerators for People to Buy

A new plasma accelerator the size of a few shipping containers instead of a city has been developed by a private Texas-based company.

TAU Systems, based in Austin, has developed a prototype miniature plasma accelerator that could allow particle accelerator technology to be accessible for any institution who needs it. According to TAU, this would allow the creation of custom medicines, break down microplastics and even eliminate nuclear waste.

"It has the potential to basically revolutionize the way we do, for example, biomolecular chemistry stuff," Bjorn Manuel Hegelich, the founder and CEO of TAU, told Newsweek. "From vaccines, new drugs, new crops, garbage, plastic eating bacteria, [this technology has] all kinds of applications."

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Stock image of particle collision in Large Hadron Collider. TAU Systems are developing a compact plasma accelerator much smaller than the LHC. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Particle accelerators generally use electromagnetic fields to propel charged particles to very high speeds and energies for use in research. The largest accelerator currently operating is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, operated by CERN, which accelerates two beams of protons and collides them head-on.

This compact accelerator generates powerful X-rays by using intense lasers to accelerate elementary particles to close to the speed of light, however, instead of around in a circle as seen at the LHC, this compact machine does it in a straight line.

"We're basically taking a normal particle accelerator, which is the size of a campus, right, but now with our technology we can fit it into a room," Hegelich said.

"I mean, it's still going to be a big machine as far as machines go. But it's going to be tens of meters instead of kilometers, and it's gonna be tens of millions of dollars instead of billions. So it becomes much more accessible to a much broader range of institutions and companies. And so thereby, we can have a lot more people access to these or other incredible tools and help them use them."

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TAU Systems CEO Bjorn Manuel Hegelich and COO Jerome Paye in the lab. TAU Systems Inc.

The LHC measures around 17 miles in circumference. TAU's accelerators, in contrast, are expected to measure no longer than a few shipping containers.

"CERN accelerates protons and antiprotons, while the machines that we are looking at, at least to start with, we're going to be concentrating on electrons," Hegelich said.

"What limits you in a conventional particle accelerator is that you need to build it out of something: you build the accelerating structure out of metal, and then you put an electric field on that metal structure and the electric field is what accelerates the particles. Now you can only make that field so strong: at a certain point, it will be so strong that it now starts to damage your accelerator structure and will start damaging the metal. We're using a plasma.

"A plasma is when you rip all the electrons off the atoms: once you've done that, there's really nothing else you can do to damage it more than that. So the laser generates a tremendously strong electric field. And that means we can make the distance over which we accelerate much smaller."

These X-rays allow researchers to look into systems on a molecular level, allowing for the analysis of proteins and new medicines.

"You can hit your protein with very bright X-rays, and the X-rays will actually destroy the protein. Before it destroys the protein, you get all the information about the structure, and you can measure that," Hegelich said. "With an X-ray free electron laser, you can now enter proteins that you cannot usually measure."

TAU hopes that this compact accelerator will make this kind of analysis more accessible to the scientific community.

The accelerators currently can only accelerate electrons to the kind of speeds needed for this application. However, TAU hopes to eventually be able to accelerate protons, which requires more power, but could enable them to be used to safely dispose of nuclear waste.

Currently, the heavy elements produced by nuclear fission reactions in nuclear power plants are disposed of via being placed in canisters which are then placed in tunnels and sealed with rocks and clay. This nuclear waste is composed mostly of uranium, but also other radioactive elements like long-lived isotopes of technetium, neptunium and plutonium.

By bombarding these heavy atoms with protons, you can change one element into another.

"You can transmute it to a different element so you could take a long lived nuclear waste isotope and transmute it, change it into a short lived one," Hegelich said.

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TAU scientist aligning laser beams within laser system TAU Systems Inc.

"The physics of that is pretty clear. We've been doing this for decades at an accelerator, it's just there's no doubt that that can be done, this is being done in nuclear physics experiments all the time."

However, this would only be viable if the amount of energy used to get rid of the waste was less than what was generated in producing the waste, via the nuclear fission reaction.

These machines are currently only at the prototype stage, but TAU hopes that in the next few years, their first fully operational accelerator will be available for scientists to borrow.

"We have a bunch of prototypes: we have the laboratory prototypes in my university labs, and then other academic institutions that we collaborate with. So that's where we are doing the work right now. And that's where we demonstrated the basic principles," Hegelich said.

"And then we have our first company prototype, basically under construction now and that will take a few years or three years of the contract, construct the machine and then we hope to have a first full fledged machine with imaging and so on, maybe five years.

Hegelich expects that each accelerator will cost around $10 million to $20 million each, eventually getting cheaper with time and development.

"The first one will probably be like every prototype first one's more expensive. But once you get started making many of them, I think sort of the low $10 to $20 million range depending on the size. And there we will be maybe even below the $10 million range. So a few million dollar range for just X-ray imaging of say, 3D printed parts, metal parts, and so on."

For now, TAU say that their greatest challenge is finding qualified people to work in this nascent field.

"It's still it's relatively new field and we're competing for people with the largest and most renowned academic institutions in the world."