Accelerator science benefits Northern Powerhouse, says leading expert

By Erin White - 23 September 2016

Brexit is threatening to disrupt major accelerator science programs resulting in wider consequences for the British industry. This potentially includes work on the world’s first plasma-based accelerator with industry beam quality; a cutting-edge development which could transform the way that particle accelerators are used to the benefit of science and society.

Ahead of his presentation next week to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Professor Carsten P. Welsch of the Cockcroft Institute and Head of Physics at the University of Liverpool argues that the ambiguity surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union is already having a negative effect on UK science.

He said: “We have read reports over the past few months that an EU exit would have serious consequences for science. This is certainly the case for my sector, as uncertainty over funding is now having an impact on critical European initiatives.”

Since the referendum results, Prof Welsch has seen students and post-doctorate researchers reconsider coming to the UK. Furthermore, existing researchers are now thinking of leaving the UK, which would result in a loss of first-rate talent.

Accelerator science depends on international collaboration – no single institution dominates and many countries need to work together in order to push the current science and technology limits.

“In this regard, the prognosis for the UK is gloomy,” continues Prof Welsch.  “Industry will miss out on access to world leading research if scientific projects are compromised.

“Accelerator science has already fuelled innovation in fields as varied as medical diagnostics, cancer treatment, semiconductor research and materials development. It has also advanced our understanding of the basic laws of nature.”

Prof. Welsch’s T.E.A.M. at the QUASAR Group of the University of Liverpool has supported him in the coordination and management of several prestigious training initiatives in this field. This includes a new European Design Study – ‘EuPRAXIA’ ( – which is made up of 16 institutions and 18 associated partners from more than eight countries under the leadership of scientists from DESY in Hamburg, Germany.

 EuPRAXIA is to design the world’s first high-energy plasma-based accelerator, which will be stronger and more compact than accelerators available today.  Plasma accelerators can sustain an electric field up to 10,000 times greater than more conventional radiofrequency (RF) accelerators in a much shorter distance. This is creating the potential for significantly smaller – and hence cheaper – accelerators.

Amongst the numerous applications of such a plasma accelerator are ultra-compact light sources, as well as installations for non-destructive testing (NDT).  NDT within the aircraft industry can show defects or changes in thickness of the structure, providing early warning of corrosion and erosion. A much more compact higher energy accelerator would be very desirable for NDT applications and allow entirely new types of testing.

Prof Welsch says: “Although there has been academic research into plasma-based high gradient accelerators, no infrastructure exists where the quality of the accelerated beam satisfies the requirements of industry. EuPRAXIA aims to creating such a facility; this would be a major breakthrough and would attract users from many different sectors.

“Assuming results from the final accelerated beam would be even better than that currently achieved, then many additional applications across material and life sciences, chemistry and surface studies come into reach.”

In addition, EuPRAXIA also aims to train a new generation of accelerator scientists and engineers with skills of direct relevance to industry.

Prof Welsch argues: “The UK has been a fantastic place to do world-class research and the government now needs to ensure that this is not put at risk in the upcoming negotiations with the EU. It is vital that the UK retains access to funding from the large EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.”

Prof. Welsch’s lecture – ‘Accelerating to the speed of light’ – will be held at the YMCA Wirral in Birkenhead, between 18:30 and 20:30 on 27 September 2016. The event has been organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Merseyside and West Cheshire local network. 

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