Working of Cyclotron

A cyclotron is a kind of circular particle accelerator. In a cyclotron, a charged particle is accelerated along a spiral path under the action of a static magnetic field and an alternating electric field. The charged particle is inserted in a cyclotron such that its direction of motion is perpendicular to the static magnetic field. The magnetic field causes the particle to make rotations and the electric field accelerates the particle after each rotation. The electric field is generated by a high-frequency alternating voltage. The frequency of the alternating voltage is matched with the cyclotron frequency for the charged particle and generally, it is kept constant. 


Frequency of Rotation of a Charged Particle in a Uniform Magnetic Field

The theory of cyclotron is based on the interaction of a charged particle with electric and magnetic fields. The magnetic force on a particle of charge q, moving with velocity v due to a uniform magnetic field B is given by,

F = q v x B

When a charged particle moves perpendicular to a constant magnetic field with speed v, the magnitude of the magnetic force is,

F = q\[\nu\]B sin 900

F = q\[\nu\]B

This force acts in a direction perpendicular to both the velocity of the particle and the magnetic field. 

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The Circular Path of a Charged Particle

The particle starts to rotate in a circular path of radius r such that the magnetic force serves as the centripetal force of that circular path. The centripetal force \[F_{c}\] has magnitude,

\[F_{c}\] = \[\frac{m\nu^{2}}{r}\] 

Here, m is the mass of the particle and r is the radius of the circular path. The centripetal force is equal to the magnetic force i.e.

\[F_{c}\] = F

\[\frac{m\nu^{2}}{r}\] = q\[\nu\]B

\[\nu\] = \[\frac{qBr}{m}\]

The angular velocity (cyclotron angular frequency) is given by,

\[\omega\]  = \[\frac{\nu}{r}\]

\[\omega\] = \[\frac{qB}{m}\]

The frequency of the rotation namely cyclotron frequency is,

f = \[\frac{\omega}{2\pi }\]

f = \[\frac{qB}{2\pi m}\]

This is the cyclotron frequency formula. 


Operating Principle of Cyclotron

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  • In a cyclotron, two hollow “D” shaped electrodes are placed face to face with a small gap, inside a vacuum chamber. An alternating voltage is applied between the “dees” across the gap. A uniform magnetic field is applied perpendicular to the plane of the electrodes. The “dees” have a cylindrical space for the particles to move.

  • Charged particles are injected at the center of the cylindrical space (shown by a dot in the figure). If the particles would have a constant velocity, they would rotate in circles of constant radii. But an alternating voltage of high frequency is applied across the gap. The frequency is set such that the charged particles make a semicircle during a single cycle of the alternating voltage. In other words, the frequency of the ac voltage must match with the cyclotron frequency of the particles given by the cyclotron formula,

f = \[\frac{qB}{2\pi m}\]

Here, q is the charge, mis the mass of the particle and B is the magnetic field strength.

  • Each time a particle completes a semicircle inside a dee and approaches the other dee, the polarity of the voltage flips. The particle gets accelerated towards the other dee due to the electric field created by the ac voltage and its velocity increases.

  • Since the frequency remains constant, the particle starts to move in a circle of larger radius. The particle’s trajectory takes the shape of a spiral of increasing radius. With each full cycle, the radius increases, and the velocity also increases. This process continues until the radius of the trajectory approaches the radius of the cylinder and the accelerated particles are passed through an exit at the end of the cylinder. The radius of the cylinder must be set such that the desired velocity of the particles can be reached.


Applications of Cyclotron

Cyclotrons are much more effective than linear accelerators because cyclotrons accelerate the particles several times in a single set up and due to their cylindrical shape, less space is required as compared to linear accelerators. Some of the uses of cyclotron are listed below,

  • Cyclotrons are widely used to accelerate charged particles in nuclear physics experiments and use them to bombard atomic nuclei.

  • For radiation therapy in the treatment of cancer, different cyclotrons are used.

  • Cyclotrons can be used for nuclear transmutation (change of the nuclear structure).


Limitations of Cyclotron

  • Neutral particles (e.g. neutron) do not interact with electric or magnetic fields. So, cyclotrons cannot be used to accelerate them.

  • Since electrons have very small mass, their speed increases very rapidly and soon the resonance between the high voltage and the particle becomes lost. Hence, a cyclotron cannot accelerate electrons.

  • Cyclotrons can accelerate particles to speeds much less than the speed of light (in the non-relativistic regime).


Did You Know?

  • To accelerate particles with relativistic speed, synchrocyclotrons (frequency of the voltage is adjusted after each cycle), and isochronous cyclotrons (the magnetic field is adjusted) are used. These modifications are made to balance the increasing mass of the accelerating particle as its speed tends to the speed of light. 

  • Ernest O. Lawrence invented the first-ever cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley in 1932. It was a 69 cm diameter machine with a maximum energy of 4.8 MeV. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1939 for this invention. He also invented a synchrocyclotron in 1945. 

  • The largest cyclotron is at TRIUMF (Canada’s particle accelerator center), which has a diameter of 18 m and maximum energy of 520 MeV.

  • The Superconducting Ring Cyclotron (SRC) can produce high-intensity beams of accelerated particles. At RIKEN, a large research institute in Japan, there is an SRC of 19 m diameter. It has six superconducting sectors. 

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What is Meant By Cyclotron Frequency? What is the Difference Between a Cyclotron, a Synchrocyclotron, and an Isochronous Cyclotron?

Cyclotron frequency is the frequency of rotation of a charged particle, moving perpendicular to a static magnetic field.

Both the frequency of the voltage and the magnetic field strength are held constant in a cyclotron since it accelerates the particles to non-relativistic speeds. The particles can approach the speed of light in a synchrocyclotron (varying frequency) and an isochronous cyclotron (varying magnetic field).

2. What are the Advantages and Drawbacks of a Cyclotron?

The construction of a cyclotron is very compact and a charged particle can be accelerated multiple times in a single setup. 

Neutral particles cannot be accelerated using a cyclotron accelerator since electric and magnetic fields cannot exert force on neutral particles. A cyclotron is not efficient to accelerate an electron since it has a very small mass.