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The world’s largest X-ray laser is now officially open for business

Tunnelflug / Tunnel flight 2017
The European XFEL, the world’s most powerful image-producing X-ray laser, has officially opened for business in Germany. Capable of generating enormously intense laser flashes at a rate of 27,000 per second, the groundbreaking laser had its official opening ceremony late last week — after a construction period lasting eight years. The X-ray laser is located 125 feet below ground, in a 3.4-kilometer tunnel beneath the northern city of Hamburg. Earlier this year it did its first test laser flash, but this month marks the $1.7 billion project’s completion.

“An X-ray laser is basically a very intense X-ray light source,” Professor Christian Bressler, one of the scientists involved in the project, told Digital Trends. “Imagine your doctor’s X-ray diagnosis machine, make it a billion times more intense, and deliver all that intensity onto the tip a sharpened pencil. It allows us to study phenomena which otherwise would lie completely in the dark — [such as taking] multiple snapshots during the course of an evolving biochemical reaction. It has just the right intensity, precision and ultrashort time structure that [is needed to] record still images even during an explosive chemical reaction. This way we hope to get a new understanding of the fundamental steps of emerging chemical reactivity.”

Essentially, the giant laser is a super-speed strobe light that’s capable of capturing stages in the motion of individual atoms so researchers can get a picture of their exact arrangement at every stage of a reaction. The technology the team employs is capable of not only recording a 1-megapixel image from a 50 femtosecond X-ray flash, but also of readying itself to do so again just 200 nanoseconds later.

“One of the first research projects to be awarded time at the SPB/SFX instrument is a collaboration between many international groups who are world leaders in a technique called Serial Femtosecond Crystallography,” Dr. Richard Bean, another scientist working on the project, told us. “The femtosecond X-ray flashes will be used to record diffraction images from hundreds of thousands of tiny protein nanocrystals on our state-of-the-art X-ray camera, and later computationally combine these patterns to generate an atomic-resolution 3D model of an individual protein molecule.”

Something tells us there’s a pretty spectacular coffee table book of photos in this project’s future! Alongside, you know, some spectacular science and stuff.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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