Donald Kerst and the Betatron

The first betatron, a particle accelerator that accelerates electrons, built at University of Illinois in 1940 by Donald W. Kerst

The first betatron, a particle accelerator that accelerates electrons, built at University of Illinois in 1940 by Donald W. Kerst

On November 1, 1911American physicist Donald William Kerst was born. Kerst worked on advanced particle accelerator concepts (accelerator physics) and plasma physics. He is most notable for his development of the betatron, a novel type of particle accelerator used to accelerate electrons.

Donald Kerst earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1934. In 1937, he received his PhD for his thesis on “The Development of Electrostatic Generators in Air Pressure and Applications to Excitation Functions of Nuclear Reactions”. This work involved building and testing a 2.3 MeV generator for experiments with the scattering of protons.

At General Electric Company, Donald Kerst then worked on the development of x-ray tubes and machines. However, since x-ray research required high energies that could not be produced at the time, Kerst found this work rather frustrating. At the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Donald Kerst then was encouraged by F. Wheeler Loomis, back then head of the physics department, to create a better particle accelerator.

The result was the betatron particle accelerator which became operational on July 15, 1940. Donald Kerst then also became the first known person to accelerate electrons using electromagnetic induction, reaching energies of 2.3 MeV. Before betatron was actually named, Kerst’s colleagues suggested the German term “Ausserordentlichhochgeschwindigkeitelektronenentwickelndenschwerarbeitsbeigollitron”. In 1941, Kerst decided on betatron, using the Greek etter “beta”, which was the symbol for electrons, and “tron” meaning “instrument for”. The betatron was a major success and was used in particle physics experiments to provide high-energy beams of electrons. A small version of a betatron was also used to provide a source of hard X-rays for prompt initiation of some experimental nuclear weapons by means of photon-induced fission and photon-neutron reactions in the bomb core. The Radiation Center, the first private medical center to treat cancer patients with a betatron, was opened by Dr. O. Arthur Stiennon in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1950s.

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