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Device that accelerates a beam of fast-moving, electrically charged atoms (ions) or subatomic particles. Accelerators are used to study the structure of atomic nuclei (seeatom) and the nature of subatomic particles and their fundamental interactions. At speeds close to that of light, particles collide with and disrupt atomic nuclei and subatomic particles, allowing physicists to study nuclear components and to make new kinds of subatomic particles. The cyclotron accelerates positively charged particles, while the betatron accelerates negatively charged electrons. Synchrotrons and linear accelerators are used either with positively charged particles or electrons. Accelerators are also used for radioisotope production, cancer therapy, biological sterilization, and one form of radiocarbon dating.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on particle accelerator, visit Britannica.com.