Lizzie Buchen in Wired:
Size matters in particle physics: The bigger the machine, the more violently physicists can smash atoms together and break open the deepest mysteries of the subatomic world. But a revolutionary new technology could eventually render some gargantuan particle accelerators passé.
Using simulations, a team of German and Russian physicists have pioneered a new technique for particle acceleration, called proton-driven plasma-wakefield acceleration (PWFA). The technique may one day allow machines a fraction of the size of today's accelerators to create the highest-energy particles ever.
“This could be a major step forward,” says Allen Caldwell of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, coauthor of the study, which appeared in Nature Physics Sunday. “The dream is that it will lead to much more compact — and therefore much cheaper — electron accelerators.”
Progress in particle physics is contingent on the power of particle accelerators, and as particle colliders grow, the price tag and bureaucratic hurdles grow with them. Government pocketbooks are becoming increasingly tight — in December both the U.S. and the U.K. pulled out of the proposed $7 billion International Linear Collider, which may never actually be built. So to continue searching for answers to physics' greatest questions — dark matter, extra dimensions, supersymmetry — physicists may have to find a fundamentally new way to accelerate particles. Caldwell and his colleagues hope proton-driven PWFA will pave the way.