All fired up over world's biggest X-ray laser gun

The European X-Ray Free Electron Laser, built at a cost of €1.5 billion (S$2.4 billion), is lodged in a series of tunnels up to 38m underground near Hamburg, Germany.
The European X-Ray Free Electron Laser, built at a cost of €1.5 billion (S$2.4 billion), is lodged in a series of tunnels up to 38m underground near Hamburg, Germany.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Laser's ability to study sub-atomic particles promises discoveries in medicine, biology, energy, IT & chemistry

PARIS • A sleek, subterranean X-ray laser set to be unveiled in Germany today, the most powerful in the world yet, has scientists in a dozen fields jostling to train its mighty beam on their projects.

European XFEL will reveal - and capture in images - secrets at the sub-atomic level, promising breakthroughs in medicine, biology, energy, information technology and chemistry.

It will map the molecular architecture of viruses and cells, render three-dimensional nano-scale snapshots and film chemical reactions as they unfold. Earth scientists should be able to duplicate and study processes occurring deep inside planets, including our own.

"The laser is the biggest, and the most powerful, source of X-rays ever made," said Dr Olivier Napoly, a member of the French Atomic Energy Commission which helped to build the complex.

The European X-Ray Free Electron Laser, or XFEL, is lodged in a series of tunnels up to 38m underground near the city of Hamburg.

Its centrepiece is the world's longest - 1.7km - superconducting linear accelerator, designed to provide the energy needed to generate X-ray flashes a billion times brighter than the best conventional radiation sources.

That is 27,000 X-ray flashes per second, compared with the 120 flashes per second produced by a laser of the same type at the US National Accelerator Laboratory in Stanford, California, and 60 flashes per second generated by another in Japan.

  • How it works

  • • Bundles of electrons are accelerated to high energies near the speed of light to generate X-ray flashes.

    • The electrons, charged with electrical power, race through magnets that force the particles onto a tight, swerving slalom course.

    • Each individual electron emits X-ray radiation that becomes more and more amplified.

    • The electrons gather into a multitude of ultra-thin discs, allowing them to emit their light in sync and produce extremely short, intense X-ray flashes of laser light.

For X-ray lasers, brilliance is measured in the number of photons - sub-atomic light particles with no electric charge that move at the speed of light - generated at a certain radiation wavelength, from high-energy gamma rays and X-rays, to low-energy infrared and radio waves.

The uber-laser is "like a camera and a microscope that will make it possible to see more tiny details and processes in the nano world than ever before", said Dr Robert Feidenhans'l, chairman of the European XFEL management board.

Scientists in the field of medicine are eager to train the laser on the tiniest building blocks of living tissue. And in the field of energy, scientists hope to use it to improve the efficiency of solar and fuel cells.

The €1.5 billion (S$2.4 billion) XFEL is a scaled-up version of a smaller, free-electron laser called Flash, which has been in use since 2005. Spearheaded by Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, the Hamburg-based research centre that built Flash, the European XFEL was born of an international agreement inked in 2009.

Ten European countries and Russia pitched in with cash and/or resources, and Britain has pledged to join the consortium soon. The existing European members are Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2017, with the headline 'All fired up over world's biggest X-ray laser gun'. Print Edition | Subscribe