SLAC dedicates 'revolutionary' new X-ray laser

Laser allows physicists to see basic processes of matter and life for the first time

Officials at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Monday unveiled a new X-ray laser they said will "revolutionize" research in energy and environmental science, drug development and materials engineering.

The Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) is able to "view matter on a scale of individual atoms, and on time scales fast enough to see atomic motion and changes in the chemical bonds between them," researchers said.

The laser effectively makes "stop-motion movies of the basic processes of matter and life for the first time," they said.

The $420 million LCLS is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with construction led by SLAC in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $53.6 million to accelerate the construction of scientific instruments for the new machine.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a former Stanford physics professor, was on hand for the dedication along with Stanford University President John Hennessy, SLAC Director Persis Drell, and U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda, both Democrats from San Jose.

"We at SLAC could not have delivered the LCLS on our own; the Department of Energy, Stanford University and all our partners were always there when we needed them," Drell said.

"And now we have a facility that is annihilating expectations. The early experiments are swimming in data and are already exploring new frontiers -- the science is starting to flow."

The idea of LCLS, which involves making ultra-bright, ultrafast X-ray pulses from a high-energy electron beam, was first conceived in 1992, with the notion that SLAC's existing linear accelerator could form the backbone of the laser. After research and development, SLAC broke ground on the facility in October 2006.

The LCLS's first X-ray laser light was created on April 10, 2009, and first experiments started a few months later. The results of those early experiments, conducted by hundreds of scientific users from around the world, have recently started to appear in scientific journals.

Those results have imaged bacteria and parts of the photosynthetic system found in plants. They have also stripped atoms such as neon completely bare of their electrons, from the inside out for the first time, which is made possible by the high energy X-rays. Current and future experiments are investigating more complicated molecules and beginning to piece together the first movies of atomic dynamics in action.

More information about the first LCLS experiments can be found in the June 30 SLAC press release, "First Results from the LCLS: Unpeeling Atoms and Molecules from the Inside Out," and the Nov. 2, 2009, release, "Science begins at the World's Most Powerful X-ray Laser."

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