World’s most powerful X-ray laser begins operation

Scientists across Europe have hailed the dawn of a new era of molecular research, thanks to the official opening of The European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL), the largest and most powerful X-ray laser in the world.

accelerator, X-ray
Researchers will use XFEL to watch molecules in action

Based in the German city of Hamburg, the billion Euro facility consists of a superconducting linear accelerator and a photon beamlines housed in a 3.4km long underground tunnel running from the DESY research centre in Hamburg, to the nearby town of Schenefeld.

Scientists will be able to use the X-ray flashes generated by XFEL to, for example, map the three-dimensional structure of biomolecules and other biological particles, and do so faster and with more detail than has ever been previously possible.

Furthermore, single snapshots of particles produced with the X-ray laser can be sewn together to create “molecular movies” to study the progress of biochemical and chemical reactions – the basis for the development of new medicines and therapies or environmentally friendlier production methods and processes for extracting energy from sunlight.

During operation, electrons are accelerated to an energy of up to 17.5GeV along the mile-long accelerator before being slalomed through a series of magnets known as undulators, causing them to emit bunches of high-energy X-rays.

The system is able to produce up to 27,000 pulses per second of extremely bright light, enabling it to measure reactions too rapid to be captured by other methods. Furthermore, the wavelength of the X-ray laser can be varied from from 0.05 to 4.7 nanometres, enabling measurements at the atomic scale.

Other applications lie in the field of materials science with the development of new materials and substances, and in the optimisation of storage media for computers or the investigation of extreme matter conditions such as those found within exoplanets.

Prof. Dr. Johanna Wanka, German minister for education and research, stressed the importance of the new international research facility: “The establishment of the European XFEL has created a unique cutting-edge research facility, which promises groundbreaking insights into the nanocosmos. The foundations for tomorrow’s innovations are laid by today’s basic research.”

As previously reported by The Engineer, the facility generated its first laser light back in May 2017.