World's brightest X-ray to get 10,000 times brighter

Stanford University's LCLS X-ray laser is getting a second laser, making the high-powered tool substantially faster, brighter, and more powerful.

The world’s most powerful X-ray is getting a major overhaul, courtesy of the Department of Energy.

On Monday, construction began on adding a second X-ray laser beam to the already-powerful Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). The additional laser will be 10,000 times brighter and 8,000 times faster than the current LCLS. The boost will greatly increase the scientific research capabilities of the machine.

"LCLS-II will take X-ray science to the next level, opening the door to a whole new range of studies of the ultra-fast and ultra-small," said Mike Dunne, director of LCLS and physicist at Stanford University in Stanford Calif., in a press release. "This will tremendously advance our ability to develop transformative technologies of the future, including novel electronics, life-saving drugs, and innovative energy solutions."

What does it do? Essentially, the machine captures the basic properties of fundamental natural processes.

The LCLS is a unique piece of hardware operated by the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) National Accelerator Laboratory – and it's the first of its kind.

"The LCLS has three major characteristics as a machine and a microscope," Professor Dunne told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

The machine operates with pulses of X-ray light that have high energy and small wavelengths. As the light passes through objects that would be impenetrable to visible light, the high-powered X-ray light can illuminate individual atoms.

The LCLS pulses these bright flashes of X-ray light rapidly. The incredibly short burst of time between flashes allows scientists to capture a type of stop-motion film of how atoms move and behave.

And the brighter the light, the more incredible details it captures in its stop-motion recording.

Already the machine has led to advances in life sciences, better understandings of chemical reactions, and new insights into things as obscure as the structure of soot – and researchers are constantly finding more uses for the machine.

So why does it need an upgrade?

"This is a machine that is a billion times brighter than anything that came before … but it has a limitation," says Dunne.

The LCLS currently pulses 120 times per second. That may sound fast, but it requires scientists to set up experiments to reflect near ideal situations and only study regularly occurring reactions.

To study infrequent and fast reactions under more natural conditions, like plants naturally turning water into oxygen, the LCLS needs a faster and brighter laser.

The LCLS-II will pulse a million times a second and be substantially brighter, giving scientists even more detailed views of reactions.

That's big news for scientific research, says Dr. Thomas P. Russell, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has used the LCLS for experiments in the past, in a Monitor interview.

There are a lot of problems that the world is feeling currently. If I just go with energy – there are questions associated with 'If we understand how photosynthesis really works, can we replicate that?'

Being able to understand the basic principles that govern many of the processes that are critical for energy applications is just something that we guess now. But if we know, we’d be able to replicate them much more effectively.

The cost of the improvements: a $1 billion tab for the Department of Energy's Office of Science. 

The LCLS facility will also have to shut down for 18 months, a loss partially mitigated by smaller X-ray facilities that will be operational during the downtime.

"The rest of the world is really waiting to implement this kind of technology as well… There is already a machine open in Japan, one's opening in Switzerland, Korea, and in Germany,” says Dunne.

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