Stanford researchers unveiled a new kind of linear accelerator in Nature today, both smaller and more powerful than its enormous predecessors. Instead of using microwaves like traditional accelerators, the new accelerator works by accelerating electrons to near light-speed through conventional techniques, then run through an intricately cut glass prism in combination with laser light, which increases their energy without increasing their speed. Nanoscale ridges in the prism allow particles to interact the laser light in asymmetrical patterns, boosting energy levels at 10 times the rate of devices at the more conventional Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
While the experiment was successful, the technology still has far to go before it can be put to use. The next step is a longer version of the fingertip-sized device, which scientists hope will create even greater gains in acceleration. The chip-sized nature of the accelerator makes it potentially extremely versatile, and researchers speculate it could be used to create X-ray free-electron lasers or portable X-ray sources that could be used by mobile medics to detect broken bones.