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Need a Particle Accelerator? No Problem for this Student!

July 14, 2016

Carl Fremlin Workbench

DIY: When Carl Fremlin realized his research required a unique sort of particle accelerator unavailable on campus, he decided to build his own. “We don’t have the device. I can’t get my hands on the device, so I’ll build it.”

Imagine your science project requires a sophisticated and expensive piece of research equipment your school doesn’t own.

Time to find another project, right?

Not if you’re Carl Fremlin, a junior mechanical engineering major who was faced with just this problem last spring when his research project called for a specially designed particle accelerator, a device used by scientists to explore some of the universe’s biggest questions.

“I thought, ‘We don’t have the device. I can’t get my hands on the device, so I’ll build it,’” Fremlin says.

He wanted an accelerator to make extremely sharp metal probes such as those used in scanning electron microscopes. The sharper the probes, the better the microscopes can produce images of even the tiniest microscopic objects.

Getting the probes’ tips as sharp as possible has long been a big problem for researchers. However, within the past few years a professor at the University of Illinois, Joe Lyding, discovered a way to make the tips as small as just a few atoms across. His method involves firing particles (ionized argon atoms) directly at the point of an electronically charged probe. The probe’s electric charge deflects the firing particles slightly away from the tip, causing the particles to gradually whittle away at the edges of the probe, leaving a super-sharp tip behind.

“It’s pretty new stuff,” Fremlin says. “I wanted to see if I could replicate [Lyding’s] research.”

However, another obstacle in Fremlin’s path was that when he started the project he had no idea how a particle accelerator actually works. But, as you might suspect, that didn’t stop him.

“Weeks and weeks of reading and Googling” paid off, he says. “By the end of spring quarter, I had [a particle accelerator] designed.”

Carl Fremlin Accelerator

Components of Carl Fremlin’s particle accelerator

Fremlin, who is from the Washington D.C. metro area, started his work in the spring. With help from assistant professors Scott Kirkpatrick (physics and optical engineering) and Patrick Cantwell (mechanical engineering) and supported by a Joseph A. and Reba B. Weaver Undergraduate Research grant, he remained on campus this summer to continue the project. He believes all of the components needed for his accelerator will cost about $1,500—far less than the lowest-priced accelerators on the market. A GoFundMe campaign he launched has raised several hundred dollars so far.

If his accelerator successfully sharpens probes, Fremlin says he would like to try using it to sharpen other things, such as surgical scalpel blades. If successful, this could make scalpels so sharp that a patient’s healing time would be significantly shortened, he says.

“I just want to show that the principle works, because, if it works, it can be refined, and if it can be refined, it can be perfected,” he said.

Fremlin plans to leave his accelerator at Rose-Hulman when he graduates. He is designing it to be small enough for one person to carry, but easily expanded and modified.

“My hope is this will be a stepping stone to greater particle physics research at Rose-Hulman,” he said. “What future students decide to do with it—that’s up to them.”