TAU set to democratise access to the ultraverse

Companies and universities could have access to X-ray Free-Electron Lasers (XFEL) by 2027, an advance that would give them unprecedented access to, and understanding of, interactions taking place in the so-called ultraverse.

TAU Systems aligning laser beams within laser system
TAU Systems aligning laser beams within laser system - TAU

Ultraverse is a term coined by US company TAU Systems whose XFEL and laser-driven particle accelerator solutions will provide access to ultra-small objects evolving under ultra-fast and powerful conditions.

The European XFEL is 3.4km long and was built at a cost of €1.25bn. According to company CEO Bjorn Manuel Hegelich, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, TAU is developing a scalable solution from ‘small room sized for the easier applications to…factory hall sized for the more complicated ones.’

With this, TAU expects to democratise access to facilities that are normally off limits to most. “If you are a company and you want to get time at an XFEL you can’t,” he told The Engineer.  “The only way to get time is to be in a very recognised, reputable research collaboration and to write an access proposal which gets evaluated by a committee, and then you may or may not get time.”

The idea that a laser could drive a plasma wave to accelerate particles has been around since 1979. “It was a brilliant idea, only in ‘79 there was no laser even imaginable that could do this,” said Hegelich. “That changed in the mid-late 80s with the invention of CPA - Chirped-Pulse Amplification – lasers.”

He continued: “Since the late 90s they [lasers] have been at the stage where they can now start to accelerate particles. For the last 20 years we’ve all been working on that and perfecting it, and there have been [several] breakthroughs to really get them to a point where we can think about making them into a product. We’ve come up with a specific type of plasma target that allows us to basically increase the performance on our laser system by a factor of five in energy, and another factor of 10 or so in charge, in the number of particles accelerated.”

Put very simply, TAU’s solution seeds a plasma-based accelerator with nanoparticles to generate electron packets that surf on the plasma waves and accelerate close to the speed of light. These particles, and the X-rays they can produce, allow for observations of ultra-fast events at an ultra-small scale.

TAU expects to begin concept development in 2023 and will construct an XFEL in 2024. To meet those milestones, TAU is working on system stability and shot-to shot repeatability, plus increasing the average power of laser systems that will have peak power of up to a petawatt. Future applications include the transmutation of nuclear waste.

“They are very high peak power laser systems…but the average power is in the order of a few watts right now, maybe 100 watts or so,” said Hegelich. “We aim to go to many, many kilowatts - tens to hundreds of kilowatts eventually - and that is a big challenge.” 

Laser shots at samples will be between 20-150 femtoseconds, which is laser dependent. “That’s the region in which the physics basically works, and it also means that the pulses, the electro pulses you get out, are going to be of even shorter duration; they are going to be a fraction of the duration of the laser pulse.”

Tau’s two-pronged business envisages offering beamtime, data acquisition and analysis as a full-service supplier as well as complete laser-driven accelerators and XFEL systems for sale. As well as offering its first products for sale in 2024, TAU plans to have an XFEL service centre operational by 2026, and to start selling full XFEL systems by 2027.