This article focuses on the concept of gamma rays, their sources and emitters. It then focuses on the presence of gamma rays in the cosmos and how they are generated. Finally, it talks about joint research between facilities in the US and Czech Republic and how they would benefit the gamma-ray generation process.
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What are Gamma Rays?
In simple terms, gamma rays can be defined as packets of electromagnetic energies which are emitted after radioactive decay. In the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays are deemed to be the most radioactive rays of all. Gamma rays can often be confused with X rays, but the key difference is that an excited nucleus produces gamma rays in an atom instead of an excited electron.
Sources and Emitters
Despite being dangerous, gamma radiation is commonly found in many radioisotopes due to radiation in uranium, thorium, and actinium. They are also emitted by potassium-40 and carbon-14, radioisotopes commonly found in rocks, soil, and our food.
Since the emergence of the first nuclear reactor in the US in 1951, artificial gamma radiation has also become prominent. Nuclear reactor fission and high-energy physics experiments release this type of radiation.
As far as gamma radiation emitters are concerned, radionuclides are the commonly used radiation sources. Although gamma radiation can be potentially harmful if not handled properly, its emitters and their material penetration properties are exploited in various industries.
For instance, cobalt-60 is widely used in medical equipment sterilization in hospitals, pasteurization processes of certain foodstuffs, and industrial radiography. Caesium-137, on the other hand, is used to measure soil moisture and investigate subterranean strata (that is coal, gas and other non-renewable energy resources). Other sources such as americium-241 and technetium-99m are used as smoke detectors and blood flow studies.
As gamma radiation is highly penetrative, it is a potential workplace hazard. High exposure to gamma radiation can cause immediate damage to the cells, whereas continuous exposure can lead to cancer.
Cosmic Gamma Rays
Gamma rays originate in the cosmos, with scientists having classified several processes that create these cosmic rays. In space, gamma rays can be produced whenever a high-energy particle collides with another particle, accelerating the charged particle and an element through radioactive decay.
In cases of particle-particle collision, the collision of cosmic rays with a proton produces pi mesons (pions). It is these pions that decay into a pair of gamma rays. These gamma rays propel forward in a ‘v’-shaped movement.
In a radioactive decay process, there is an alteration in the atom’s nucleus, which changes the nucleus into its excited state. To go back to a stable state, the nucleus emits gamma rays. This kind of phenomenon is usually observed in a supernova. Regarding the acceleration of charged particles, radiation occurs when a magnetic field exerts a force upon a charged particle circling it.
High-Power Laser Generating Gamma Rays
Due to its potential benefits in day-to-day use and in medicine and industry, many researchers have always aimed to cost-effective and efficient gamma-ray generation. The most recent research in the field is by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Czech Science Foundation (GACR). They plan to use the ELI Beamline’s multi-petawatt laser facility to efficiently generate dense gamma ray beams. This petawatt laser can generate up to a million billion watts of energy.
The research aim is to imitate the matter creation phenomena observed in pulsars wherein the magnetosphere of a pulsar generates extreme energies (often gamma radiations) by the collision of photons. Reproduction of the same phenomena on earth would involve using high-power lasers to create dense photon clouds with energies million times higher than visible light.
The project will exploit the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI ERIC) facilities available at ELI Beamlines (Czech Republic) and ELI Apls (Hungary). The concept of ‘relativistic transparency’ will be utilized, wherein the plasma electrons would be accelerated to near light speeds to create extremely strong magnetic fields, ultimately emitting gamma rays in the direction of the laser.
This would be the first time a gamma ray would be practically generated using high-powered lasers. The high-powered lasers can also generate multiple shots per second instead of one shot per second, making it way better to statistically articulate the gamma-ray generation process.
Besides the gamma-ray generation process, the project aims to train upcoming scientists to create mechanisms to optimize the usage of these high-powered lasers to be efficient for several studies.
The Future of Gamma Ray Generation
With the joint project in full motion, scientists are optimistic about a breakthrough in gamma ray generation. As Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan from the NSF states, this collaboration has the potential to expand to artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and plasma science research.
References and Further Reading
Optics.org. (2022) US and Czech scientists researching gamma-ray production by high power laser. [Online] Available at: https://optics.org/news/13/7/6
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