How particle accelerators work at TRIUMF


A composite particle made up of a nucleus (a proton, or combination of protons and neutrons), as well as the electrons surrounding the nucleus.

What are particles?

You are made of atoms, and so is almost everything around you

—your teeth, your shoes, the pale blue dot we live on, and even the stars that burn in our own galaxy as well as those far away. 

Atoms are built from protons, neutrons, and electrons, which combine in different ways to form elements.

Research teams at TRIUMF and around the world use machines like particle accelerators to break or fuse nuclei (the dense cores of atoms) to learn more about the laws of our Universe and how we can harness them for the benefit of all.

Subatomic Particles

Atomic Particles


A subatomic particle that carries a positive electrical charge; also the atomic nucleus of hydrogen.


A particular ‘species’ of atom. Every element represents an atom with a particular number of protons and electrons, and these numbers define the element’s chemical behaviour.


A subatomic particle that carries no electric charge; neutrons join with protons to create the nuclei (the cores) of all atoms.


Electrically charged atoms that result when we add or take away electrons  from a regular atom.


A subatomic particle that carries a negative charge.


While each element has an atomic nucleus  with a unique proton number, the neutron number can vary. These different ‘flavours’  of the element are called ‘isotopes.’ 

TRIUMF is Canada’s particle accelerator centre.

TRIUMF is home to some of the most advanced particle accelerators in the world, including two made-in-Canada wonders—the world’s largest cyclotron of its kind and a state-of-the-art superconducting linear electron accelerator.

TRIUMF fosters an inclusive and increasingly diverse lab community that unites multidisciplinary teams spanning the fields of accelerator science, technology, and engineering. We work together with each other and our network to expand our knowledge of the Universe and apply science to solve problems and drive discovery and innovation.


The 520 MeV cyclotron is 18 m in diameter, sits in a concrete vault 3-storeys high, and is connected to 1 km of beamline.

If you dropped the cyclotron at centre ice in a standard NHL hockey rink, it would extend from blue line to blue line.


With the exception of a shutdown period for maintenance, servicing, and upgrades, the cyclotron typically operates 24 hours/day to provide beams of protons to researchers and commercial users who come to TRIUMF from all around the world.


The cyclotron was built using over 4,000 metric tonnes of steel. That’s as heavy as 40 blue whales!


The cyclotron accelerates protons up to 75% of the speed of light, 224,000 km/s. That’s fast enough to go to the moon and back in 2 seconds!

What are particle accelerators?

Particle accelerators, like the ones found at TRIUMF, are tools for accelerating charged particles (electrons, protons, and ions) up to very high speeds. High-speed beams of charged particles can be used to study the Universe at every scale, from the infinitesimally small to the unimaginably big.


We also use accelerated particles to create new and exotic atomic nuclei, which in turn can be used for science, medicine, and industry.

At TRIUMF, we have multiple particle accelerators,
including both cyclotrons and linear accelerators (linacs).

Charged Particle Source

Charged particles begin their life in a ‘source’ that provides a steady stream of electrons, protons, or ions to be accelerated. For example, for the TRIUMF 520 MeV cyclotron, the source ionizes hydrogen gas to create a hydrogen atom with an extra electron.



Beamlines are evacuated pipes that allow transport of the charged particles without collisions with air molecules.


Magnetic fields can change the direction of moving charged particles. We use strong electromagnets surrounding the beamline to bend, steer, and focus the beam of charged particles during transport.

Electric Fields​

Electrical fields can be used to deflect, push, or pull charged particles, and can thus be used for acceleration. They can be either static (for accelerating particles from near rest to up to low energy) or oscillating at microwave frequencies (for accelerating to high energy).


The accelerated charged particles can be directed to collide with a fixed target like a piece of metal foil, or a chamber filled with gas. This collision transmutes the atoms in the target, which produces other atoms, including radioactive isotopes. These isotopes are used for a broad range of scientific purposes, from medical imaging and disease treatment to analyzing the cores of far-off stars.


Detectors record and reveal particles and radiation that are produced in particle collisions. This information can be used for particle and nuclear physics research, accelerator science, astrophysics, medical imaging, and other research and industrial applications.

drives discovery
and improves
our world.

From the hunt for the smallest particles in our Universe to the development of isotopes to diagnose and treat disease, TRIUMF drives more than scientific discovery. We are pushing the frontiers of isotope science and innovation, as well as technologies to address fundamental and applied problems in particle and nuclear physics and the materials and life sciences.

Our passion for understanding everything from the nature of the nucleus to the creation of the cosmos sparks imagination and inspiration, improves health, creates economic opportunity, and builds a better world.

Discovery Science

Accelerators and detectors are essential tools of discovery for particle and nuclear physics. They enable us to peer into the cores of far-off stars to witness the birth of elements, to delve into the forces that hold protons and neutrons together in the nucleus, and to manufacture critical medical isotopes for imaging and treating disease.

TRIUMF has an expert team that develops and operates these machines, taking the technology to new frontiers for our lab and other organizations around the world (including the Large Hadron Collider at CERN).


Training and Education

As a nexus for interdisciplinary research and industry-leading innovation, we provide skills and knowledge for the next generation of game-changers. We engage with hundreds of students, postdoctoral researchers, and trainees every year.



TRIUMF is Canada’s premier laboratory for medical isotope production and research, and a world leader in advancing the frontiers of isotope science to improve lives everywhere.



Particle accelerators like TRIUMF’s cyclotrons and linacs, as well as the detector technologies we develop, are employed worldwide to investigate the properties of matter, characterize novel substances and materials, test space-bound satellites and technologies, reduce environmental impacts, and more.