Circular or cyclic accelerators
In the circular accelerator, particles move in a circle until they reach sufficient energy. The particle track is typically bent into a circle using electromagnets. The advantage of circular accelerators over linear accelerators (linacs) is that the ring topology allows continuous acceleration, as the particle can transit indefinitely. Another advantage is that a circular accelerator is smaller than a linear accelerator of comparable power (i.e. a linac would have to be extremely long to have the equivalent power of a circular accelerator).
Depending on the energy and the particle being accelerated, circular accelerators suffer a disadvantage in that the particles emit synchrotron radiation. When any charged particle is accelerated, it emits electromagnetic radiation and secondary emissions. As a particle traveling in a circle is always accelerating towards the center of the circle, it continuously radiates towards the tangent of the circle. This radiation is called synchrotron light and depends highly on the mass of the accelerating particle. For this reason, many high energy electron accelerators are linacs. Certain accelerators (synchrotrons) are however built specially for producing synchrotron light (X-rays).
Since the special theory of relativity requires that matter always travels slower than the speed of light in a vacuum, in high-energy accelerators, as the energy increases the particle speed approaches the speed of light as a limit, never quite attained. Therefore particle physicists do not generally think in terms of speed, but rather in terms of a particle's energy or momentum, usually measured in electron volts (eV). An important principle for circular accelerators, and particle beams in general, is that the curvature of the particle trajectory is proportional to the particle charge and to the magnetic field, but inversely proportional to the (typically relativistic) momentum.
The earliest circular accelerators were cyclotrons, invented in 1929 by Ernest O. Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley. Cyclotrons have a single pair of hollow 'D'-shaped plates to accelerate the particles and a single large dipole magnet to bend their path into a circular orbit. It is a characteristic property of charged particles in a uniform and constant magnetic field B that they orbit with a constant period, at a frequency called the cyclotron frequency, so long as their speed is small compared to the speed of light c. This means that the accelerating D's of a cyclotron can be driven at a constant frequency by a radio frequency (RF) accelerating power source, as the beam spirals outwards continuously. The particles are injected in the centre of the magnet and are extracted at the outer edge at their maximum energy.
Cyclotrons reach an energy limit because of relativistic effects whereby the particles effectively become more massive, so that their cyclotron frequency drops out of synch with the accelerating RF. Therefore simple cyclotrons can accelerate protons only to an energy of around 15 million electron volts (15 MeV, corresponding to a speed of roughly 10% of c), because the protons get out of phase with the driving electric field. If accelerated further, the beam would continue to spiral outward to a larger radius but the particles would no longer gain enough speed to complete the larger circle in step with the accelerating RF. Cyclotrons are nevertheless still useful for lower energy applications.
Synchrocyclotrons and isochronous cyclotrons
There are ways of modifying the classic cyclotron to increase the energy limit. This may be done in a continuous beam, constant frequency, machine by shaping the magnet poles so to increase magnetic field with radius. Then higher energy particles travel a shorter distance in each orbit than they otherwise would, and can remain in phase with the accelerating field. Such machines are called isochronous cyclotrons. Their advantage is that they can deliver continuous beams of higher average intensity, which is useful for some applications. The main disadvantages are the size and cost of the large magnet needed, and the difficulty in achieving the higher field required at the outer edge.
Another possibility, the synchrocyclotron, accelerates the particles in bunches, in a constant B field, but reduces the RF accelerating field's frequency so as to keep the particles in step as they spiral outward. This approach suffers from low average beam intensity due to the bunching, and again from the need for a huge magnet of large radius and constant field over the larger orbit demanded by high energy.
Another type of circular accelerator, invented in 1940 for accelerating electrons, is the Betatron. These machines, like synchrotrons, use a donut-shaped ring magnet (see below) with a cyclically increasing B field, but accelerate the particles by induction from the increasing magnetic field, as if they were the secondary winding in a transformer, due to the changing magnetic flux through the orbit. Achieving constant orbital radius while supplying the proper accelerating electric field requires that the magnetic flux linking the orbit be somewhat independent of the magnetic field on the orbit, bending the particles into a constant radius curve. These machines have in practice been limited by the large radiative losses suffered by the electrons moving at nearly the speed of light in a relatively small radius orbit.
To reach still higher energies, with relativistic mass approaching or exceeding the rest mass of the particles (for protons, billions of electron volts GeV), it is necessary to use a synchrotron. This is an accelerator in which the particles are accelerated in a ring of constant radius. An immediate advantage over cyclotrons is that the magnetic field need only be present over the actual region of the particle orbits, which is very much narrower than the diameter of the ring. (The largest cyclotron built in the US had a 184 in dia magnet pole, whereas the diameter of the LEP and LHC is nearly 10 km. The aperture of the beam of the latter is of the order of centimeters.)
However, since the particle momentum increases during acceleration, it is necessary to turn up the magnetic field B in proportion to maintain constant curvature of the orbit. In consequence synchrotrons cannot accelerate particles continuously, as cyclotrons can, but must operate cyclically, supplying particles in bunches, which are delivered to a target or an external beam in beam "spills" typically every few seconds.
Since high energy synchrotrons do most of their work on particles that are already traveling at nearly the speed of light c, the time to complete one orbit of the ring is nearly constant, as is the frequency of the RF cavity resonators used to drive the acceleration.
Note also a further point about modern synchrotrons: because the beam aperture is small and the magnetic field does not cover the entire area of the particle orbit as it does for a cyclotron, several necessary functions can be separated. Instead of one huge magnet, one has a line of hundreds of bending magnets, enclosing (or enclosed by) vacuum connecting pipes. The design of synchrotrons was revolutionized in the early 1950s with the discovery of the strong focusing concept. The focusing of the beam is handled independently by specialized quadrupole magnets, while the acceleration itself is accomplished in separate RF sections, rather similar to short linear accelerators. Also, there is no necessity that cyclic machines be circular, but rather the beam pipe may have straight sections between magnets where beams may collide. be cooled, etc. This has developed into an entire separate subject, called "beam physics" or "beam optics".
More complex modern synchrotrons such as the Tevatron, LEP, and LHC may deliver the particle bunches into storage rings of magnets with constant B, where they can continue to orbit for long periods for experimentation or further acceleration. The highest-energy machines such as the Tevatron and LHC are actually accelerator complexes, with a cascade of specialized elements in series, including linear accelerators for initial beam creation, one or more low energy synchrotrons to reach intermediate energy, storage rings where beams can be accumulated or "cooled" (reducing the magnet aperture required and permitting tighter focusing; see beam cooling), and a last large ring for final acceleration and experimentation.