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What Black Holes and Waste Treatment Have in Common

This article was originally published on iaea.org

Bring concepts such as black holes and large hadron colliders down a peg or two, and you will find that physics, and the world of particle accelerators in particular, is more relevant to our everyday lives than we normally consider.

"Accelerators as a part of modern technology have a remarkable, but for the general public not a very visible role," says Yury Sokolov, Deputy Director General at the IAEA´s Department of Nuclear Energy. "Only outstanding examples like the Large Hadron collider and black holes can excite general interest."

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Particle accelerators, however, can do more. They make medical isotopes, expand access to radiotherapy, strengthen structural materials, and help study the origins of the universe. They have the potential to possibly check cargo containers for contraband and even help reduce the amount of high-level waste from nuclear power plants.

To discuss the state-of-the-art in particle accelerators, the results of their research and future plans, some 280 physicists from 56 countries are gathering from 4-8 May in Vienna, Austria, for an event organized by the IAEA in cooperation with the American Nuclear Society.

The objectives of the International Topical Meeting on Nuclear Research Applications and Utilization of Accelerators are to promote information exchange among IAEA Member States, discuss new trends in accelerator applications, enhance research collaboration between Member States and promote education on all aspects of accelerators.

"Accelerators are fundamental to research, training and education. They are particularly valuable in understanding the basic structure of materials, in improving materials and in testing new materials," says Werner Burkart, IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

Accelerator irradiation is useful for studying high dose effects on materials, for example. New, well-tested materials are particularly useful in the development of improved nuclear power reactors based on fission, and for fusion reactors where materials are subjected to very high temperatures, large temperature differences and high radiation exposure.

Nuclear Billiards Ball

Scientists sometimes describe the way a particle accelerator works using the analogy of breaking the rack in a billiards game. When the cue ball speeds up, it receives a strong burst of energy necessary to scatter the rack of balls. Similarly, a particle accelerator takes particles of the atom to high speeds, and collides them with target atoms. The resulting pieces from the collision - and the resulting radiation - are detected and analyzed. This information tells us not only about the particles that make up the atom, but also about the forces that hold it together.

Beams of high-energy particles are useful for both fundamental and applied research in the sciences. For the most basic inquiries into the dynamics and structure of matter, space, and time, physicists seek the simplest kinds of interactions at the highest possible energies.

Cyclotrons are the most commonly used devices for the acceleration of particles to energies sufficient for bringing about required nuclear reactions. In cyclotrons, the path of the particles in a linear accelerator is bent into a circle so that the particles are accelerated over and over again using the same electrode system.

Accelerator centres form the basis of nuclear knowledge and continue to be the starting point of nuclear development in both developed countries and emerging economies.