Cyclotron, any of a class of devices that accelerates charged atomic or subatomic particles in a constant magnetic field. A cyclotron consists of two hollow semicircular electrodes, called dees, mounted back to back, separated by a narrow gap, in an evacuated chamber between the poles of a magnet. An electric field, alternating in polarity, is created in the gap by a radio-frequency oscillator.
The first particle accelerator of this type was developed by the American physicists Ernest Orlando Lawrence.
Lawrence first conceived the idea for the cyclotron in 1929. One of his students, M. Stanley Livingston, undertook the project and succeeded in building a device that accelerated hydrogen ions (protons) to an energy of 13,000 electron volts (eV). Lawrence then set out to build a second cyclotron; when completed, it accelerated protons to 1,200,000 eV, enough energy to cause nuclear disintegration. To continue the program, Lawrence built the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley in 1931 and was made its director.
One of Lawrence’s cyclotrons produced technetium, the first element that does not occur in nature to be made artificially. His basic design was utilized in developing other particle accelerators, which have been largely responsible for the great advances made in the field of particle physics. With the cyclotron, he produced radioactive phosphorus and other isotopes for medical use, including radioactive iodine for the first therapeutic treatment of hyperthyroidism. In addition, he instituted the use of neutron beams in treating cancer.
The magnetic resonance accelerator, or cyclotron, was the first cyclic accelerator and the first resonance accelerator that produced particles energetic enough to be useful for nuclear research. For many years the highest particle energies were those imparted by cyclotrons modeled upon Lawrence’s archetype. In these devices, commonly called classical cyclotrons, the accelerating electric field oscillates at a fixed frequency, and the guiding magnetic field has a fixed intensity.
The particles to be accelerated are formed near the centre of the device in the gap, where the electric field propels them into one of the dees. There the magnetic field guides them in a semicircular path. By the time they return to the gap, the electric field has reversed, so they are accelerated into the other dee. Although the speed of the particles and the radius of their orbit increase each time they cross the gap, as long as the mass of the particles and the strength of the magnetic field remain constant, these crossings occur at a fixed frequency, to which the oscillator can be adjusted.
A cyclotron operating in this manner can accelerate protons to energies no greater than 25 million electron volts. This limitation is imposed by the relativistic increase in the mass of any particle as its speed approaches that of light. As the mass increases, the orbital frequency decreases, and the particles cross the gap at times when the electric field decelerates them.
To overcome this limitation, the frequency of the alternating voltage impressed on the dees can be varied to match that of the orbiting particles. A device with this feature is called a synchrocyclotron, and energies close to one billion electron volts have been achieved with it. Another technique is to strengthen the magnetic field near the periphery of the dees and to effect focusing by azimuthal variation of the magnetic field. Accelerators operated in this way are called isochronous, or azimuthally-varying-field (AVF) cyclotrons.
In the synchrocyclotrons, because of the modulation, the particles do not get out of phase with the accelerating voltage, so that the relativistic mass increase does not impose a limit on the energy. Moreover, the magnetic focusing can be made stronger, so that the magnetic field need not be so precisely shaped.
Because of the phenomenon of phase stability, it is unnecessary to program the frequency of the accelerating voltage precisely to follow the decreasing frequency of revolution of the particles as they are accelerated. To see how phase stability affects the operation of a cyclotron, consider a particle moving in an orbit. Let the frequency of the accelerating voltage match the orbital frequency of this particle. If the particle crosses the accelerating gap at the time the accelerating voltage is zero, its energy and orbital radius will remain unchanged; it is said to be in equilibrium. There are two such times during each cycle of the accelerating voltage; only one of these (that at which the voltage is falling, rather than rising, through zero) corresponds to stable equilibrium. If a particle should arrive a short time before the voltage has fallen to zero, it is accelerated. Its speed therefore increases, but the radius of its orbit increases by an even larger proportion, so that the particle will take longer to reach the gap again and will next cross it at a time closer to that at which it would receive no acceleration. If, on the other hand, the particle reaches the gap a short time after the voltage has fallen through zero, its speed is diminished, and the radius of its orbit is diminished even more, so that it takes less time to reach the gap again, arriving—like the other particle—at a time closer to that at which it receives no acceleration. This phenomenon, by which the trajectories of errant particles are continually corrected, confers stability on the entire beam and makes it possible to accelerate the particles uniformly, by modulating the frequency, without dispersing them. The small periodic variations of the particles about the equilibrium values of phase and energy are called synchrotron oscillations.
In the operation of a synchrocyclotron, particles are accelerated from the ion source when the frequency of the accelerating voltage is equal to the orbital frequency of the particles in the central field. As the frequency of the voltage falls, the particles, on the average, encounter an accelerating field. They oscillate in phase but around a value that corresponds to the average acceleration. The particles reach the maximum energy in bunches, one for each time the accelerating frequency goes through its program. The intensity of the beam is a few microamperes, much lower than that of a classical cyclotron.
Large synchrocyclotrons have been constructed in many countries. They are used primarily for research with secondary beams of pi-mesons. The practical upper limit of the energy of a synchrocyclotron, set by the cost of the huge magnets required, is about 1 GeV.
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