Development of stable laser-accelerated electron beams for radiation generation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford Physics


Particle accelerators are used in many areas of the physical and biological sciences. For example, fundamental studies of the building blocks of matter are carried out with huge accelerators at institutions such as CERN. On a smaller scale, synchrotrons use accelerated electron beams to create light which is widely tunable from the infra-red to x-rays. The conventional accelerators used in these machines employ radio-frequency electric fields to accelerate charged particles. However, the maximum electric field that can be used is limited by electrical breakdown in the beam pipes, so that accelerating particles to high energies requires a very long accelerator (the largest machine at CERN is 27 km in circumference!).Laser-driven plasma accelerators offer a way to make particle accelerators much more compact. In these devices an intense laser pulse propagates through an ionized gas (a plasma). As it does so, the laser pulse pushes the electrons away from it and sets up a plasma wave which follows the laser pulse; this behaviour is directly analogous to the water wake which trails a boat crossing a lake. In the case of a plasma wave, at the peaks of the wave there are more electrons than average, and at the troughs there are fewer. As a result of this charge separation, a very large electric field forms between the peaks and troughs of the plasma wave. This field can be about 1000 times larger than the maximum electric field used in conventional accelerators, which means that a plasma accelerator can be 1000 times shorter than a conventional one and still produce particles of the same energy.This idea for making compact accelerators was first proposed over 25 years ago, but until recently the energies they could reach were relatively low. The primary reason for this is that the driving laser pulse naturally defocuses by diffraction as it propagates through the plasma, reducing its intensity to the extent that acceleration ceases after only a few millimetres. Over the last few years our group has developed a new technique for channelling the intense laser pulses over long distances. This technique involves forming a so-called plasma waveguide by firing an electrical discharge through a narrow, gas-filled capillary. The plasma formed in this way has a lower density on axis, which acts to continually refocus the laser radiation and so prevent it from defocusing. The plasma waveguide is therefore similar to an optical fibre.Very recently we used this channelling technique to extend the length of laser-driven plasma accelerators by a factor of about 10, and so increase the energy of the accelerated electrons to a billion electron volts - that is, the energy an electron would gain if it were accelerated by two plates with a billion volts between them. This electron energy is about thesame as used in conventional synchrotrons - but the plasma accelerator is only 33 mm long, compared the tens of metres required for a conventional accelerator.The present programme of research aims to build on these advances and investigate techniques for: (i) generating more stable electron beams, better suited to applications; (ii) increasing the energy of the accelerated electrons by staging plasma accelerators, just as is routinely done in conventional accelerator systems. Finally we will use improved measurements of the electron beam properties to assess the prospect of realizing one of the likely first applications of laser-plasma accelerators: driving very compact sources of tunable, short-pulse, x-rays.


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Description When an intense laser pulse propagates through a plasma (an ionized gas) the electrons in the plasma are pushed away from the front and back of the laser pulse to form a trailing plasma wave in much the same way that a moving boat creates a water wake. The electric fields in the plasma wave can be more than a thousand times larger than those used in conventional accelerators such as the LHC at CERN. Particles injected into the correct phase of the plasma wave can therefore be accelerated to energies of order 1 GeV in only a few tens of millimetres.

In this grant we demonstrated, for the first time, the generation of radiation in the soft X-ray region by passing laser-accelerated electrons though a magnetic undulator. We also developed new methods for measuring the very short electron pulses produced by the accelerator, and developed new theoretical models to describe the way these electrons could be used to drive a free-electron laser.
Exploitation Route If successful, this approach would immediately enable very compact sources of X-rays - either from the plasma accelerator itself, or via an external magnetic undulator. As techniques to control plasma accelerators are developed it can be expected that they could drive extremely compact free-electron lasers coherent (i.e. "laser-like") radiation at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths and, eventually, in the X-ray range. On a longer timescale, MP-LWFAs may provide efficient, high-repetition rate accelerator stages for compact particle colliders.

Plasma accelerators would be sufficiently compact and cheap for use in university, hospital or industrial laboratories. Bringing into these labs research which is today restricted to national or international facilities would greatly increase the access to ultrafast imaging and probing techniques --- there is little doubt that success in this area could revolutionize work in many areas of the medical, biological and physical sciences. This in turn would benefit society through increased understanding of important chemical and biological processes and by better medical diagnostics. For example, new imaging methods have emerged at synchrotrons that enable much earlier diagnosis of serious diseases such as cancer, where earlier diagnosis translates directly into saving lives. There is in addition the possibility of using this technology to improve treatments by, for example, micro-beam radiation therapy.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology