Particle accelerators are among the most important tools for research. They speed up tiny, electrically charged particles nearly to the speed of light – that is, to almost 300 000 kilometres per second. A broad range of scientific disciplines benefit from these fast particles. Particle physicists bring them together in head-on collisions to investigate the tiniest building blocks of matter. Chemists, materials scientists and biologists use accelerators to generate the brightest X-ray radiation in the world in order to examine diverse materials ranging from aircraft turbines to microchip semiconductors and proteins that are essential to life. Medical researchers use accelerators for cancer therapy, as the high-energy particle beams can be targeted to destroy tumours.
All accelerators function according to the same principle: powerful radio waves accelerate the particles and massive magnets keep them on course. However, the accelerators’ specific technology varies according to the field of application. For the purposes of particle physics, gigantic facilities must endow the particles with as much energy as possible. Only then is it possible to generate and analyse the fundamental components of matter. An accelerator that functions as a light source, on the other hand, must induce the particles to emit extremely brief and intense flashes of X-rays.
A world-class accelerator centre
With over 50 years of experience in both areas, DESY is among the world's leading accelerator centres. The accelerators and detectors that DESY develops and builds are unique research tools. The facilities generate the world’s most intense X-ray light, accelerate particles to record energies and open completely new windows onto the universe. To design, build and successfully run such sophisticated pieces of high-tech equipment over a period of many decades requires the combined forces of numerous experts from a whole range of specialist fields. All in all, around 600 people at DESY work on accelerator development, construction and operation, in close cooperation with universities, research institutions and industrial companies from Germany and throughout the world.
High tech for highest energies
The DESY experts can only expand their leading position in the world ranking of accelerator centres by time and again breaking new technological ground. With the superconducting TESLA technology, DESY and its international partners have developed a pioneering accelerator concept that forms the basis for three major facilities: the free-electron laser FLASH at DESY, where the technology was developed and implemented for the first time; the European XFEL X-ray laser in Hamburg, which will be the strongest X-ray source in the world when it powers up in 2017; and a future super accelerator for particle physics, the International Linear Collider ILC.
One of the features of key technologies is their rapid development. FLASH therefore continues to serve not only as an X-ray laser, but also as a test facility for further optimizing the TESLA technology. In Zeuthen, DESY operates the linear accelerator PITZ dedicated to the development of electron sources for the X-ray lasers and linear accelerators of the future. And the new source of relativistic electron beams REGAE also serves as a test facility for accelerator technology.