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SPACES: What’s going on in that car-sized aluminum box? Is that an electron-volt accelerator?

November 30, 2011

electron volt

Many are unaware of this, but Beloit College has its very own electron-volt accelerator, housed on the first floor of the Center for the Sciences.

What is an electron-volt accelerator? It’s a contraption that accelerates ions to .5 million to 2 million volts of energy. The ions are concentrated into a beam and shot at targets located in an electromagnet. By measuring the reflection of energy that bounces back, researchers can get atomic information and a nuclear profile of the target materials.

The bulk of the accelerator is enclosed in an aluminum box about the size of an economy car. Here, a rotating belt generates a charge that produces ion plasma. The plasma is then accelerated through a glass vacuum (which is in turn hooked up to a mechanical pump to keep it clear of oil and air) and shot at targets located in the brass knobs of an electromagnet.

The electron volt accelerator was designed and built by Beloit College faculty and students, beginning in the mid-70s. The accelerator generated its first ion beam in about 1980, says Paul Stanley, professor of physics and lead researcher/re-builder of the accelerator.  

“When I arrived in 2002, [the accelerator] had been unused for 14 years,” says Stanley. It had to be disassembled and put back together again in order to move from Chamberlin to the new Center for the Sciences, a process that took about four years. Currently, Stanley and others are working on updating the controls so the accelerator can be operated electronically.

electron volt 

At this point the accelerator is still a work in progress; it is not ready to run experiments that will yield publishable material. But that’s not the point. The coolest thing about the accelerator is not the ion plasma, the giant electromagnet, or the glass vacuum the beam travels through. The best part, says Stanley, is that students have the opportunity to “get down and dirty with it” on a regular basis.  

Next time you’re in the science center, take a peak in Room 145. You might see Stanley with a student or two, doing science and playing with the coolest toy on campus.

liquid nitrogen