06 June 2009


The invention: The first successful magnetic resonance accelerator for protons, the cyclotron gave rise to the modern era of particle accelerators, which are used by physicists to study the structure of atoms. The people behind the invention: Ernest Orlando Lawrence (1901-1958), an American nuclear physicist who was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics M. Stanley Livingston (1905-1986), an American nuclear physicist Niels Edlefsen (1893-1971), an American physicist David Sloan (1905- ), an American physicist and electrical engineer The Beginning of an Era The invention of the cyclotron by Ernest Orlando Lawrence marks the beginning of the modern era of high-energy physics. Although the energies of newer accelerators have increased steadily, the principles incorporated in the cyclotron have been fundamental to succeeding generations of accelerators, many of which were also developed in Lawrence’s laboratory. The care and support for such machines have also given rise to “big science”: the massing of scientists, money, and machines in support of experiments to discover the nature of the atom and its constituents. At the University of California, Lawrence took an interest in the new physics of the atomic nucleus, which had been developed by the British physicist Ernest Rutherford and his followers in England, and which was attracting more attention as the development of quantum mechanics seemed to offer solutions to problems that had long preoccupied physicists. In order to explore the nucleus of the atom, however, suitable probes were required. An artificial means of accelerating ions to high energies was also needed. During the late 1920’s, various means of accelerating alpha particles, protons (hydrogen ions), and electrons had been tried, but none had been successful in causing a nuclear transformation when Lawrence entered the field. The high voltages required exceeded the resources available to physicists. It was believed that more than a million volts would be required to accelerate an ion to sufficient energies to penetrate even the lightest atomic nuclei. At such voltages, insulators broke down, releasing sparks across great distances. European researchers even attempted to harness lightning to accomplish the task, with fatal results. Early in April, 1929, Lawrence discovered an article by a German electrical engineer that described a linear accelerator of ions that worked by passing an ion through two sets of electrodes, each of which carried the same voltage and increased the energy of the ions correspondingly. By spacing the electrodes appropriately and using an alternating electrical field, this “resonance acceleration” of ions could speed subatomic particles to many times the energy applied in each step, overcoming the problems presented when one tried to apply a single charge to an ion all at once. Unfortunately, the spacing of the electrodes would have to be increased as the ions were accelerated, since they would travel farther between each alternation of the phase of the accelerating charge, making an accelerator impractically long in those days of small-scale physics. Fast-Moving Streams of Ions Lawrence knew that a magnetic field would cause the ions to be deflected and form a curved path. If the electrodes were placed across the diameter of the circle formed by the ions’ path, they should spiral out as they were accelerated, staying in phase with the accelerating charge until they reached the periphery of the magnetic field. This, it seemed to him, afforded a means of producing indefinitely high voltages without using high voltages by recycling the accelerated ions through the same electrodes. Many scientists doubted that such a method would be effective. No mechanism was known that would keep the circulating ions in sufficiently tight orbits to avoid collisions with the walls of the accelerating chamber. Others tried unsuccessfully to use resonance acceleration. Agraduate student, M. Stanley Livingston, continued Lawrence’s work. For his dissertation project, he used a brass cylinder 10 centimeters in diameter sealed with wax to hold a vacuum, a half-pillbox of copper mounted on an insulated stem to serve as the electrode, and a Hartley radio frequency oscillator producing 10 watts. The hydrogen molecular ions were produced by a thermionic cathode (mounted near the center of the apparatus) from hydrogen gas admitted through an aperture in the side of the cylinder after a vacuum had been produced by a pump. Once formed, the oscillating electrical field drew out the ions and accelerated them as they passed through the cylinder. The accelerated ions spiraled out in a magnetic field produced by a 10-centimeter electromagnet to a collector. By November, 1930, Livingston had observed peaks in the collector current as he tuned the magnetic field through the value calculated to produce acceleration. Borrowing a stronger magnet and tuning his radio frequency oscillator appropriately, Livingston produced 80,000-electronvolt ions at his collector on January 2, 1931, thus demonstrating the principle of magnetic resonance acceleration.Impact Demonstration of the principle led to the construction of a succession of large cyclotrons, beginning with a 25-centimeter cyclotron developed in the spring and summer of 1931 that produced one-million-electronvolt protons. With the support of the Research Corporation, Lawrence secured a large electromagnet that had been developed for radio transmission and an unused laboratory to house it: the Radiation Laboratory. The 69-centimeter cyclotron built with the magnet was used to explore nuclear physics. It accelerated deuterons, ions of heavy water or deuterium that contain, in addition to the proton, the neutron, which was discovered by Sir James Chadwick in 1932. The accelerated deuteron, which injected neutrons into target atoms, was used to produce a wide variety of artificial radioisotopes. Many of these, such as technetium and carbon 14, were discovered with the cyclotron and were later used in medicine. By 1939, Lawrence had built a 152-centimeter cyclotron for medical applications, including therapy with neutron beams. In that year, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the cyclotron and the production of radioisotopes. During World War II, Lawrence and the members of his Radiation Laboratory developed electromagnetic separation of uranium ions to produce the uranium 235 required for the atomic bomb. After the war, the 467-centimeter cyclotron was completed as a synchrocyclotron, which modulated the frequency of the accelerating fields to compensate for the increasing mass of ions as they approached the speed of light. The principle of synchronous acceleration, invented by Lawrence’s associate, the American physicist Edwin Mattison McMillan, became fundamental to proton and electron synchrotrons. The cyclotron and the Radiation Laboratory were the center of accelerator physics throughout the 1930’s and well into the postwar era. The invention of the cyclotron not only provided a new tool for probing the nucleus but also gave rise to new forms of organizing scientific work and to applications in nuclear medicine and nuclear chemistry. Cyclotrons were built in many laboratories in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and they became a standard tool of nuclear physics.


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