World's largest X-ray laser generates first light

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The world’s largest X-ray laser has generated its first X-ray laser light, an achievement that represents the last major milestone before its official opening in September.

Credit: DESY/D.Nölle
Credit: DESY/D.Nölle

Based in Germany, the European XFEL is a 3.4km long facility, most of which is located in underground tunnels. Once operational, it will be the largest and most powerful of the five X-ray lasers worldwide, with the ability to generate the short pulses of hard X-ray light. The X-ray light has a wavelength of 0.8nm - about 500 times shorter than that of visible light. At first lasing, the laser had a repetition rate of one pulse per second, which will later increase to 27 000 per second.

Helmut Dosch, chairman of the DESY (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron) Directorate, said: "The European XFEL will provide us with the most detailed images of the molecular structure of new materials and drugs and novel live recordings of biochemical reactions."

The X-ray laser light of the European XFEL is extremely intense and a billion times brighter than that of conventional synchrotron light sources. The achievable laser light wavelength corresponds to the size of an atom and the X-rays can be used to reveal details of biomolecules, for example, from which better understandings of the basis of illnesses or the development of new therapies could be developed.

Other opportunities include research into chemical processes and catalytic techniques, with the goal of improving their efficiency or making them more environmentally friendly; materials research; or the investigation of conditions similar to the interior of planets.

The X-ray laser light of the European XFEL was generated from an electron beam from a superconducting linear accelerator, which is the key component of the X-ray laser. The German research centre DESY, the largest shareholder of the European XFEL, put the accelerator into operation at the end of April.