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Free-Electron Lasers move discovery into warp speed
by Kathy Chambers on Tue, 26 Mar, 2013
An illustration of the Chandra spacecraft, an orbiting X-ray telescope.

Scientific research being performed today using free-electron lasers could be fodder for the next James Bond or Star Wars movie but it is way better than science fiction and it is real. 

Almost everything we know about the laws of nature and how and why we react to the world around us took many centuries to develop. However, recent free-electron laser research breakthroughs are shedding light on these fundamental processes of life and moving scientific discovery into warp speed.

The revolutionary Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the SLAC National Acceleratory Laboratory is the world’s most powerful x-ray free-electron laser and represents a new kind of laboratory for doing many types of physics. Using SLAC's linear accelerator to create the powerful X-rays, LCLS pushes science to new extremes with ultrabright, ultrashort pulses that capture atomic-scale snapshots in quadrillionths of a second.  

Researchers have used the LCLS to measure, in atomic detail, a key process at work in extreme plasmas like those found in stars, the rims of black holes and other massive cosmic phenomena. This important x-ray laser research is changing our understanding of the larger physical processes taking place in celestial sources and may pave the way for increased astrophysics research.   

The first new biological structure has been solved by a group of international scientists using the LCLS.  The study mapped a weak spot in the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness, pinpointing a promising new target for treating a disease that annually kills about 30,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa.  This research is a significant step toward developing a new drug and encourages further research to crystallize proteins relevant to other parasites and viruses, including strains of hepatitis and flu.

The X-ray laser has enabled cracking the structures of biomolecules to individual atoms by obtaining ultra-high-resolution views of crystallized biomolecules, including a small protein found in egg whites called lysozyme. This is the first-ever high-resolution experiments using serial femtosecond crystallography -- the split-second imaging of tiny crystals using ultrashort, ultrabright X-ray laser pulses (a femtosecond is one quadrillionth of a second). This research allows scientists to use smaller crystals than typical with other methods and enables researchers to view molecular dynamics in a way never before possible.

And X-ray laser science has made possible a breakthrough in studying atomic-scale transformations in photosynthesis where researchers simultaneously look at the structure and chemical behavior of a natural catalyst involved in photosynthesis for the first time. Understanding these fundamental processes could help scientists develop technologies that replicate nature’s handiwork to produce cheaper and more efficient fuels.  

These are just some of the recent discoveries enabled by free-electron lasers. (Read more about this research in the latest white paper, In the OSTI Collections: Free-electron Lasers by Dr. William Watson, Physicist, OSTI staff). 

There is an impressive and growing array of lasers, laser scientists and laser research at SLAC and in collaboration with other DOE laboratories and international partners, as demonstrated by this WorldWideScience.org search. Promising innovations in free-electron laser technology are on the horizon.  Fasten your seatbelts.

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Kathy Chambers's picture
Kathy Chambers
Senior STI Specialist, Information International Associates, Inc.