SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) in Menlo Park has spent more than a decade developing an X-ray that can take images of atoms at greater speeds than ever before. It's just produced its first images, promising a great leap in scientific research into quantum materials.
The Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS-II) can take images of chemical reactions at the atomic scale to the attosecond, one quintillionth of a second, according to a SLAC press release on Monday, Sept. 18. Scientists expect the LCLS-II to lead to developments in renewable energy and the mitigation of greenhouse gases.
“The light from SLAC’s LCLS-II will illuminate the smallest and fastest phenomena in the universe and lead to big discoveries in disciplines ranging from human health to quantum materials science,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a statement. “This upgrade to the most powerful X-ray laser in existence keeps the United States at the forefront of X-ray science, providing a window into how our world works at the atomic level."
The upgraded 1-km stretch of the 3 km-long X-ray known as LCLS-II can produce up to a million X-ray pulses per second. That's 8,000 times more than it could before, according to SLAC's press release. Its beam is also brighter and more energy efficient. Before being upgraded, it was only able to stay on for milliseconds before overheating and was 10,000 times dimmer.
Such advances are possible because SLAC successfully lowered the temperature of the device's accelerator to 2 Kelvin, or -456 F, which is lower than Uranus, the coldest point in our solar system at a frosty -371 F. This is done through a series of tubes along the X-ray that carry helium that a cryoplant holds at -456 F.
Researchers have said that they expect the scientific achievement to lead to discoveries that will improve everyday products such as phone batteries and energy grids, according to Mike Minitti, senior staff scientist and LCLS soft X-ray department head. Scientists can use LCLS-II to examine the details of quantum materials in a new way, and that can drive new forms of computing and communications. Watching chemical interactions on a scale only allowed by the LCLS-II can also drive forward research of more sustainable industries, clean energy technologies and develop new types of pharmaceuticals, according to SLAC's press release. The LCLS-II allows for study on a new scale, more minute and faster than ever before, which scientists say can open up new fields of scientific investigation.
“This upgrade will keep SLAC and the U.S. at the forefront of X-ray science,” said SLAC interim Laboratory Director Stephen Streiffer. “It’s all thanks to the amazing efforts of all parts of our laboratory in collaboration with the wider project team.”
"Experiments in each of these areas are set to begin in the coming weeks and months, attracting thousands of researchers from across the nation and around the world,” said LCLS Director Mike Dunne in a statement. "LCLS-II is going to drive a revolution across many academic and industrial sectors. I look forward to the onslaught of new ideas – this is the essence of why national labs exist.”
The work towards the LCLS-II started in 2010 and evolved into a $1.1 billion upgrade project involving thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians. The advances were also made with the collaboration of several other labs, including Jefferson Lab in Virginia and Fermilab in Illinois.
“Congratulations to SLAC and to the impressive team of accelerator experts from the Department of Energy Labs across the country that built LCLS-II,” said Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Mike Witherell. “This unique new facility will provide many new opportunities for discovery science.”