Signing up for a flash of brilliance

Nine European countries have signed an understanding to prepare for construction of an X-ray research laser (XFEL), so acute it could film chemical reactions in real time.

The UK, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany have agreed to negotiate in detail to build an underground laser generator approximately 3km long.

The e908m generator is to be built near Hamburg, with the German government covering 60 per cent of the costs. Dr Hermann Schunck, of Germany’s education and research ministry, said: ‘Even if this declaration is not yet a formal pledge, we are confident that the eight [countries] will participate in the construction and operation of the XFEL.’

Schunk chairs the international steering committee upon which signatory governments will sit, to work out detailed timetables, financing schemes, the exact technical design and the operation of the generator, which should be in service by 2012.

It would produce high-intensity, ultra-short X-ray flashes with the properties of laser light, and brilliance 10,000 times higher than most modern X-ray sources. Producing flashes shorter than 100 femtoseconds, it could match the speed chemical compounds take to form, and groups of molecules take to change their position.

The wavelength of its X-rays, which can be varied between six nm and one-tenth of a nm, would be so short that even atomic details could be seen. The generator could benefit research in a wide range of areas, from fundamental physics to the development of new nanomaterials.

The facility will include a superconducting linear accelerator that takes tightly-bundled bunches of electrons to energies of several billion electron volts. At that point, the electrons race at almost the speed of light along a slalom course through a special arrangement of magnets. As they go, they emit X-ray radiation that amplifies itself during flight.