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Explainer: How a synchrotron works

Giant magnets direct superfast light into beams up to 30 million times as bright as those produced by a laser pointer

Inside a synchrotron, big magnets, like the six shown above, help get electrons moving at nearly the speed of light. 

Australian Synchrotron Project

Electrons are very tiny atomic particles that normally orbit around the nucleus of atoms. But they can be stripped from their atoms. And when electrons move, they create electric currents (much like the ones moving through the wiring in your home).

A synchrotron uses giant magnets, radio waves and something called an electron gun to push electrons until they move at a blistering 99.9987 percent of the speed of light. That’s almost 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second. No known objects move faster than light.

Once the electrons get moving in a synchrotron, they travel through a large, ring-shaped tube. One in Australia measures 216 meters (709 feet) around. Its electrons can make 1.34 million laps around the ring in a single second. Moving at that rate, they could zoom around the world seven times in the same amount of time.

Electrons moving that quickly produce extremely bright light. Inside the synchrotron, magnets direct this light into beams, called beamlines. They come out of the machine in straight lines that are perpendicular to the central ring. A synchrotron’s beamlines are between 30,000 and 30 million times as bright as the light that comes out of a laser pointer.

Because synchrotrons create such strong, focused light, these machines can be used for a huge range of applications.

Power Words

atomic  Having to do with an atom, the smallest intact quantity of any element.

electron  A negatively charged subatomic particle. One or more electrons normally orbit the nucleus of every intact atom. Bigger atoms have more electrons. In an intact atom, the number of electrons will match that of the positively charged protons in the nucleus.

nucleus  (in physics) The large, dense core of any atom. It is populated by one or more positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons.

perpendicular  A line that meets or intersects something, forming a 90-degree angle, also known as a right angle.

radiation  The emission of energy as electromagnetic waves or as moving subatomic particles.

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