I once talked to high school students about my graduate school experience working at a cyclotron laboratory. Cyclotrons are particle accelerators in which particles follow a spiral (or circular). I kept getting the same questions in every session: “Have you seen The Flash? Is the particle accelerator real?”
At the time, the answer to the first question was no, I had not seen The Flash, which is a bit odd considering I love superhero stories. So I watched the series and checked out the show’s accelerator.
S.T.A.R. Labs, a research facility featured on the show, allegedly built the particle accelerator to advance science and provide clean power to Central City. But when they turned the accelerator on, it exploded, spewing dark matter and particles out into the city and creating a lighting storm. Barry Allen was struck by red lightning, thrown into some unidentified chemicals, and pushed into a coma for nine months. When he wakes up he finds he has gained the power of super speed.
The accelerator (and S.T.A.R. Labs) plays a major setting in the remainder of the first season. At one point, Barry ran around the particle accelerator and hit a hydrogen particle, creating a portal that would allow Barry to change the past.
So how does the fictional version in The Flash compare to the real deal?
First, let’s determine the type of accelerator featured in The Flash. The fictional accelerator follows a circular path within a pipeline, meaning it is likely modeled after synchrotrons.
In a synchrotron, charged particles such as protons or electrons are accelerated using radiofrequency (RF) cavities placed along the accelerator. These RF cavities contain electromagnetic fields, where electric and magnetic energy radiate together to create radio waves. Each time a charged particle passes a cavity, some of the energy from the radio waves is transferred to the particles.
Magnets are used to guide the particles in the accelerator. Dipole magnets, which have two magnetic poles, are used to bend the particles in an electromagnetic field. Thus, particles can be placed on a circular track instead of flying straight forwards. Quadrupole magnets focus particles into a concentrated beam. In quadrupole magnets, four magnetic poles push the particles together either vertically or horizontally. Using two or more quadrupole magnets corrals the particles in from all sides, preventing them from spreading out or hitting the edge of the pipeline.
Synchrotrons may function as colliders, in which fast-moving particles are smashed into a stationary target or other fast-moving particles. This is essentially what happens when Barry Allen collides with a hydrogen particle in the show, though we don’t actually make portals to the past in real life.
Real particle accelerators are used in probing the basic questions of the universe regarding matter, energy, space, and time. For example, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) uses a series of linear accelerators and synchrotrons to test particle physics predictions. In 2012, the LHC detected a particle later determined to be the Higgs boson, an elementary particle predicted in the Standard Model that describes matter interactions. Synchrotrons are also used for a variety of applications, including drug development, material analysis, molecular crystallography, and even possibly cancer treatment.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to learn too much about how the accelerator in The Flash works, but there’s one pretty major problem. In real-world accelerators, the pipeline the particles travel in is too small for someone to stand in, let alone run around. The pipeline is also a vacuum environment to prevent the collisions of accelerated particles with air or dust fragments. Barry Allen can survive a lot, but it’s pretty hard to survive without oxygen.
And no, particle accelerators will not give you superpowers. Sorry.
Keep calm and science on.