Europe unveils world’s most powerful X-ray laser

Facility in Hamburg will help recreate conditions deep inside the sun, unravel ways to make new antibiotics and even create a new form of diamond

Unlike a conventional camera, though, everything imaged by the X-ray laser is obliterated – its beam is 100 times more intense than if all the sunlight hitting the Earth’s surface were focused onto a single thumbnail.

.. The European beam is more powerful, but most significantly has a far higher pulse rate than either of its predecessors.“They can send 100 pulses out per second, we can send 27,000,” said Robert Feidenhan’l, chairman of the European XFEL management board.

This matters because to study chemical reactions or biological processes, the X-ray strobe is used to capture flickering snapshots of the same system at different time-points that can be stitched together into a film sequence.

At XFEL, scientists will be able to collect data at a far quicker rate and miss less of the action between shots.

.. Previously, scientists have been able to measure the crystal structure of the beginning and end-products. But, according to Orville, this is like trying to understand an Olympic high-jump contest based on pictures of the athlete on the bench before the jump and lying on the mat afterwards.

“We’re trying to get the enzyme at the top of that high bar,” he said. “We hope we’ll be able to see the very complex reaction cycle including some of the short-lived intermediates that have never been seen before.”

.. Another planned experiment will aim to reveal the process by which molecules capture light and turn it into energy during photosynthesis. “You might use that as an input to make an artificial device to do the same,” said Feidenhan’l. “That’s my dream.”

.. “The pressures you can produce are enormous; 10 million atmospheres and above, which is more than three times the pressure at the centre of the Earth.”