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5th May 2017

Biggest X-ray laser in the world generates its first light

The European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) in Germany has produced its first beams of x-rays.


biggest x-ray laser light future timeline
Credit: European XFEL / Heiner Müller-Elsner


In Hamburg, Germany, the European XFEL – the biggest X-ray laser in the world – has reached its last major milestone before the official opening in September. The 3.4 km long facility, most of which is located in underground tunnels, has generated its first X-ray laser light. This has a wavelength of just 0.8 nanometres (nm) – about 500 times shorter than that of visible light. At first lasing, this laser had a repetition rate of one pulse per second, which will later be increased to 27,000 per second, compared to the previous record of 120 per second.

The beams of the XFEL are extremely intense and a billion times brighter than conventional synchrotron light sources. The achievable light wavelength corresponds to the size of an atom, meaning that the X-rays can be used to make pictures and films of the "nanocosmos" at atomic-scale resolution – such as of biomolecules, from which better understanding of illnesses could be developed. Other opportunities include research into chemical processes and new catalytic techniques, with the goal of improving their efficiency or making them more environmentally friendly; materials research; or the investigation of conditions similar to the interior of planets.


biggest x-ray laser light future timeline
First laser light at the European XFEL, recorded by an X-ray detector at the end of the tunnel. Credit: DESY


Helmut Dosch, Chairman of the DESY Directorate, said: "The European X-ray laser has been brought to life! The first laser light produced today with the most advanced and most powerful linear accelerator in the world marks the beginning of a new era of research in Europe. This worldwide unique high-tech facility was built in record time and within budget. This is an amazing success of science. I congratulate all those involved in the research, development, and construction of this facility with passion and commitment: the employees of DESY, European XFEL, and international partners. They have achieved outstanding results and demonstrated impressively what is possible in international cooperation. The European XFEL will provide us with the most detailed images of the molecular structure of new materials and drugs and novel live recordings of biochemical reactions."

The power and speed of the XFEL will make it possible for scientists to investigate more limited samples and perform their experiments more quickly. Therefore, the facility will increase the amount of "beamtime" available, as the capacity at other X-ray lasers worldwide has been eclipsed by demand, and these other facilities are often overbooked.

At the start of September, the X-ray laser should be officially open. At that point, external users can perform experiments at the first two of the eventual six scientific instruments.


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