The Atomic Age

The Atomic Age

The Discovery and Evolution of Nuclear Science

What is an Atom Smasher?


Atom smasher is an older, popular name for a particle accelerator. They use electromagnetic fields to accelerate charged subatomic particles to high energies. Scientists use beams of high-energy particles in a wide range of research applications from the study of the origins of our universe to medical and industrial applications. The two types of particle accelerators utilized most widely in high-energy research are cyclotrons and linear accelerators.

A cyclotron operates by means of high-frequency alternating voltages to accelerate particles travelling in spiral paths within the accelerator. The particles are directed to impact a target, where they produce nuclear reactions and streams of particles. Once used in the study of short-lived subatomic particles, cyclotrons are used today for cancer treatment and for the production of positron-emitting isotopes for medical diagnoses and treatments.

Linear Accelerator

In a linear accelerator (linac) atomic particles or ions are impelled to high velocities in a straight line. This takes place within a pipe-like evacuated chamber by means of electrodes supplied with high-frequency electric energy at high voltages. The straight path of a linac gives it the advantage of greater energy capability compared to the circular path of a cyclotron. The particles usually impact a target material and produce streams of subatomic particles (including antimatter) and x-rays. Medical linacs produce high-energy electron beams to treat cancer and other diseases.