Big Complicated Machines, Geeky Physics

Big, Complicated Machines #14 – The Calutron


184” (184 inch) Cyclotron taken in 1942. Image: LBNL

Good morning everyone.

Today we’re going to talk about on odd offshoot of the cyclotron, actually it’s an odd offshoot of a cyclotron, it’s called a Calutron and it’s a device used to enrich uranium.

The calutron (I hate that name, just despise it) is another invention of E.O. Lawrence. Remember Ernest Eddy? I briefly talked about his invention of the cyclotron back in BCS #13, among other things. Anyway, Lawrence never intended to build any such device, he wanted to build bigger and better cyclotrons and had been doing just that throughout the 1930s. He and his associates built a string of them starting with the original 9 inch cobbled-together device, to a 27 inch 4.8 MeV device (a big improvement), a 37 inch 8 MeV device, and a 60 inch 16 MeV device. The experimenters that used the things just loved them and were discovering all sorts of new things, first of which is that the machines got inordinately larger (and more expensive, of course) as the power output increased. The sizes indicate the diameter of the acceleration chamber, not the size of the cyclotron itself. For example, the 60 inch device required the use of a 220 ton iron electromagnet, a picture of the device is after the jump.

Continue reading Big, Complicated Machines #14 – The Calutron

Big Complicated Machines

Big, Complicated Machines #13 – Intro to Particle Accelerators


Beamlines leading from the Van de Graaf accelerator to various experiments, in the basement of the Campus Universitaire de Jussieu in Paris. Image:Wikipedia

Good morning everyone.

Today we’re going to talk about particle accelerators, fascinating machines that have greatly expanded our knowledge of what matter is, and also of how the universe came into being. There are a great number of particle accelerators in use today, the newest and largest of which is the Large Hadron Collider that is located on the border of Switzerland and France, and operated by CERN. The LHC is the latest iteration in a long series of machines made to study the atomic structure of matter, with the first machines being made in the 1920s.

All particle accelerators use electric fields for the acceleration of charged particles to high energies and the confining of those particles into a defined and controlled beam. The beam is directed at various types of targets and materials and the interaction of the beam and the target matter is studied, typically by examining the tiny pieces of the atoms in the target that go flying off in all directions. Particle accelerators were called atom smashers for a long time for this reason. The manner in which the electric fields are applied varies widely, but particle accelerators fall into two basic categories, electrostatic accelerators and oscillating field accelerators, also known as radio frequency (RF) accelerators.

Continue reading Big, Complicated Machines #13 – Intro to Particle Accelerators