What Black Holes and Waste Treatment Have in Common

Bring concepts such as black holes and large hadron colliders down a peg or two, and you will find that physics, and the world of particle accelerators in particular, is more relevant to our everyday lives than we usually consider.

“Accelerators as a part of modern technology have a remarkable, but for the general public, not a very visible role,” says Yury Sokolov, Deputy Director General at the IAEA’s Department of Nuclear Energy. “Only outstanding examples like the Large Hadron collider and black holes can excite general interest.” Particle accelerators, however, can do more. They make medical isotopes, expand access to radiotherapy, strengthen structural materials, and help study the universe’s origins. They can check cargo containers for contraband and even help reduce the amount of high-level waste from nuclear power plants.

To discuss the state-of-the-art particle accelerators, the results of their research, and plans, some 280 physicists from 56 countries are gathering from 4-8 May in Vienna, Austria, for an event organized by the IAEA in cooperation with the American Nuclear Society.

The objectives of the International Topical Meeting on Nuclear Research Applications and Utilization of Accelerators are to promote information exchange among IAEA Member States, discuss new trends in accelerator applications, enhance research collaboration between Member States, and promote education on all aspects of accelerators.

“Accelerators are fundamental to research, training, and education. They are precious in understanding the basic structure of materials, improving materials, and testing new materials,” says Werner Burkart, IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

Accelerator irradiation helps study high-dose effects on materials, for example. New, well-tested materials are beneficial in developing improved nuclear power reactors based on fission and for fusion reactors where materials are subjected to very high temperatures, significant temperature differences, and high radiation exposure.


Scientists sometimes describe the way a particle accelerator works using the analogy of breaking the rack in a billiards game. When the cue ball speeds up, it receives an intense burst of energy necessary to scatter the rack of balls. Similarly, a particle accelerator takes particles of the atom at high speeds and collides them with target atoms. The resulting pieces from the collision – and the resulting radiation – are detected and analyzed. This information tells us about the particles that make up the atom and the forces that hold it together.

Beams of high-energy particles are useful for fundamental and applied scientific research. For the most basic inquiries into the dynamics and structure of matter, space, and time, physicists seek the most direct interactions at the highest possible energies.

Cyclotrons are the most commonly used devices for accelerating particles to energies sufficient for generating required nuclear reactions. In cyclotrons, the path of the particles in a linear accelerator is bent into a circle so that the particles are accelerated repeatedly using the same electrode system.

Accelerator centers form the basis of nuclear knowledge and are the starting point of atomic development in developed countries and emerging economies.

Original at: iaea.org