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A laser-driven electron accelerator that is integrated on a chip has been created by Jelena Vučković and colleagues at Stanford University. The device was developed using inverse design algorithms and comprises a highly complex silicon waveguide that is driven by near-infrared pulses. Soon, the researchers hope that the technology can be used to accelerate electrons to energies of about 1 MeV.

Conventional accelerators use radio-frequency (RF) radiation to boost charge particles to relativistic speeds. While incredibly useful in both science and medicine, such accelerators are large and expensive – putting them out of reach of many universities, research institutes and hospitals.

Dielectric laser accelerators (DLAs) offer a promising way of creating smaller and cheaper electron accelerators. They work by firing pulses of visible or near-infrared light onto nanostructures such as silicon pillars or gratings. The nanostructures are in an evacuated channel through which a beam of low-energy electrons is sent to be accelerated by the light. By using radiation at much shorter wavelengths, DLAs can be around 10,000 times smaller than conventional RF accelerators.

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