The World’s Most Powerful X-Ray Laser Is Being Upgraded


Construction is underway to upgrade the world’s brightest X-ray laser at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in California. This exceptional machine is used to capture images of individual atoms and molecules at a fast rate, which allows scientists to create stop-motion videos of chemical reactions.

The upgrade will replace one-third of the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), the uncatchy name for the X-ray laser, and rebuild it with new components for a total cost of $1 billion. The second X-ray laser will be able to work 8,000 times faster and 10,000 times brighter than the current one.

The upgrade, dubbed LCLS-II, will allow scientists to better study important (and common) chemical reactions like never before. For example, the study of how combustion works at an atomic level could lead to more efficient fuels.

“LCLS-II will take X-ray science to the next level, opening the door to a whole new range of studies of the ultrafast and ultrasmall,” said LCLS Director Mike Dunne in a statement. “This will tremendously advance our ability to develop transformative technologies of the future, including novel electronics, life-saving drugs and innovative energy solutions.”

The new X-ray laser will work in parallel with the current one, making observations over a larger range of energies and in less time. They will be able to investigate both rapid processes and probe delicate samples, pushing the envelope of what can be achieved with X-ray microscopy.

SLAC Director Chi-Chang Kao said, “Our lab has a long tradition of building and operating premier X-ray sources that help users from around the world pursue cutting-edge research in chemistry, materials science, biology and energy research. LCLS-II will keep the U.S. at the forefront of X-ray science.”

The X-rays are generated by accelerating electrons through a series of magnets to nearly the speed of light. The magnets are constructed in a specific way, called an undulator, which forces the electrons to travel in a zigzag trajectory. By following this path, the electrons give off X-rays that are then used by scientists.

The current system is at room temperature and the electrons emit 120 X-ray pulses per second. The LCLS-II will be cooled down almost to absolute zero and use superconductors capable of achieving thousands more pulses per second.

Every year, hundreds of scientists use the LCLS to investigate fundamental chemical processes. The ability to produce “molecular movies” could significantly change our understanding of how chemistry works.


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