Physics Questions People Ask Fermilab
Lightning as an accelerator
Hello helpful physicist
I was just wondering,have you ever used lightning as the source of energy to power a particle accelerator? example:A small linear accelerator is constructed,mounted vertically,approx:6ft high.and this being the type to irradiate matter in the open air,rather the specimen is placed at the top of the device.along with a big toroid,or sphere to disallow the high potential from direct contact with the sample.how would it be possable to know what polarity to make the accelerating electrode?or is it that switching device, that you referred to in the letter you wrote to the 10 year old boy, that wrote to you in 1989?
Greetings, Lightning doesn't actually heve enough voltage to be of much use to us in designing new acclerators. For example, the Fermilab Tevatron (the most powerful accelerator in the world) accelerates protons to 1,000,000,000,000 volts ("ten to the twelfth volts"). In contrast, a typical lightning bolt might develop when the atmosphere develops perhaps 1,000,000 volts per meter. So even a big lighning bolt 1 kilometer in length would only deliver perhaps 1,000,000,000 volts ("ten to the twelfth volts") onto the skull of whatever poor soul gets struck by it. So the lighning can only produce 1/1000 as much voltage as the machines at Fermilab already produce. And we are planning how to build machines with 100 times more voltage than that...so, you can see that lightning won't really do the job for us.
The way that the machines at Fermilab produce these extremely high voltages for the particles that they accelerate is to put the voltage in gradually. The particles are bent around in circles by magnetic fields, and the particles are "swatted on the behind" by a radio frequency electric field each time they go around the ring. This way, the effect of the voltage builds up each time around the circle and the particles gradually get to enormous energies. Getting hit by a bolt of lighning might be just the right thing for our competitors who build (much lower energy!) linear accelerators however.
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