The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, part of the Department of Energy of the United States, has achieved the first firing of the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), an atomic and free-electron X-ray laser. This powerful tool can emit up to 1 million pulses per second, each one up to 10,000 times brighter than previous instruments, making it a much more powerful tool than its predecessor.

The improved capabilities of this laser allow for the tracking of the internal structure of molecules and freezing atomic and molecular motion, similar to a stroboscopic light in a nightclub. To generate its intense pulses of ultraviolet light, the LCLS uses a photocathode that collides with a cascade of electrons. These electrons are accelerated through cryogenic modules that contain superconducting magnets cooled to incredibly low temperatures.

The X-rays emitted by this laser can penetrate molecules and reveal their structural details. This powerful tool will enable scientists to capture more detailed instantaneous images of chemical processes and material properties in real-time.

The LCLS can produce X-rays at different “hard” and “soft” wavelengths, allowing scientists to study different levels of matter, from pharmaceutical molecules to quantum materials. “Soft” X-rays are particularly useful for observing the movement of energy and charge within molecules, while “hard” X-rays provide information about atomic structures and the world around us.

The applications of this laser are diverse, such as studying photosynthesis and examining the structure of proteins and pharmaceuticals used in disease treatment. Experiments using this enhanced tool will begin in a few weeks, and proposals for its use can be submitted.

With a limited number of free-electron X-ray laser facilities worldwide, the LCLS-X offers researchers an unprecedented opportunity to investigate fundamental science, clean energy applications, as well as initiatives related to national security and quantum information science.

Sources: The Register, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory