(PhysOrg.com) -- “When a laser goes through a plasma,” John Cary tells PhysOrg.com, “it pushes electrons away. Then when it snaps back, it generates an electric wake behind the laser pulse, picking the electrons up and carrying them along.” Cary is a physics professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, as well as the founder of Tech-X Corporation, a company that specializes in computational physics and simulation software. He is a member of a collaboration that wanted to see if it was possible to accelerate heavy ions with a laser.
“Accelerating electrons is easier, because they are light,” he says. “Instead, we wanted to see if there could be the possibility of doing this with protons and heavier nuclei.” The collaboration, a team from the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics in China and Cary, produced a simulation outlining possibilities. The results of the simulation are reported in Physical Review Letters: “Generating Monoenergetic Heavy-Ion Bunches with Laser-Induced Electrostatic Shocks.”
Cary says that the information found in the simulation may have a variety of applications. “But the most exciting application, and the one that many people are looking to use,” he points out, “is for use in cancer therapy.”
The simulation shows that for heavier ions, it is possible to accelerate them, as well as control what is known as the Bragg Peak. “When you have a small charge to mass ratio,” Cary explains, “as an ion beam travels through matter, it deposits energy. At the end, just before it comes to rest, there is a very sharp peak of energy deposition.” This Bragg Peak is used in proton therapy to concentrate the energy on cancerous tumors to destroy them.
But there can be a problem: “If the beam is not monoenergetic, the peak smears out, potentially overlapping healthy tissue, which can then be damaged,” Cary says. “Researchers are trying to narrow this peak so that it is more precise, destroying the tumor but not the surrounding healthy cells.” This new simulation implies that this could be possible: “We found that carbon may have what is needed. The configuration seems to have nice properties, with a small energy spread and a fair amount of beam.”
More information: Generating Monoenergetic Heavy-Ion Bunches with Laser-Induced Electrostatic Shocks, Phys. Rev. Lett. 101, 164802 (2008)