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Manchester to spearhead £8.3 million particle physics project

The University of Manchester is leading an £8.3 million drive to develop a new type of particle accelerator, which could lead to more effective cancer treatment, greener electricity and less nuclear waste.

Particle accelerators are used to produce beams of charged particles such as protons or electrons, which are then used for a wide variety of applications in medicine and industry and for pure scientific research.

Researchers say there is a compelling need for new types of accelerator that are easier to operate and maintain, are more reliable and compact, yet are more flexible and efficient.

One such accelerator is the ‘non-scaling fixed field alternating gradient’ (NS-FFAG) accelerator.

It is considered a very promising candidate, but no-one has yet built such a machine, and there are many technical challenges to be overcome before such a machine could be used commercially.

The new CONFORM* project has received £7.5 million funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The research is being led Professor Roger Barlow from The School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Manchester, in collaboration with Science and Technology Facilities Council (formerly the CCLRC) at the Daresbury Laboratory, The Cockroft Institute (also based at The Daresbury Laboratory), The University of Oxford, Imperial College London, The University of Birmingham, The University of Surrey, The University of Leeds, The University of Glasgow and The Gray Cancer Institute.

Professor Barlow said: “An opportunity is arising which could allow the NS-FFAG to be used as a new type of charged particle therapy machine for treating cancer. The reduced size, increased reliability and flexibility of such machines should all lead to lower costs of ownership while delivering more effective therapies.”

Professor Barlow adds that beams of protons or heavier particles such as carbon ions can deposit much more radiation directly in the cancer, while losing much less energy in the surrounding healthy tissue.

He continued: “NS-FFAGs could be used for many other purposes. They could be used to help generate electricity without significant greenhouse gas emissions while reducing the amount of long-lived nuclear waste produced.

“They could play a significant role in elementary particle physics, perhaps leading to new discoveries about the origin and structure of the universe we see around us today.

“This type of accelerator could also be at the heart of a new generation of very intense sources of neutrons for studying the structure of materials and the dynamics of chemical reactions, of interest to physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers and many industries.

“The demonstration in this country that these machines are able to meet the expectations listed above would place the UK at the forefront of this exciting new development.

“The benefits of this type of particle accelerator are large and wide-ranging. However, the behaviour of beams in these machines is impossible to predict in detail. We need to understand their stability and how tolerant they are of small changes in configuration.”

The CONFORM project is split into three areas; EMMA (Electron Machine with Many Applications) will look to develop a prototype FFAG to be built at the Daresbury Laboratory, while PAMELA is a design study for a proton NS-FFAG for medical applications. The third area will look at possible applications, from archaeology to zoology.

Jon Keighren | alfa
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