As science develops new devices for studying the world humanity as a collective gains a new way of looking at the world.
The European XFEL – X-ray Free-Electron Laser – is one such facility, allowing scientists to photograph molecules, in real-time 3D of course. This allows scientists for the first time to capture chemical reactions taking place, reactions too fast for previous technologies. This is a very big window to the world of the hyper small, nano.
XFEL may never be as well-known as CERN and they’re headline grabbing antics, but it will make an important contribution to science none the less.
Dr Markus Kuster, Group Leader of European XFEL GmbH’s Detector Development says: “The European XFEL will represent a major step forward in equipping Europe with a new generation of research infrastructure that can meet the requirements of the 21st century. STFC’s unique skills are creating an imaging device which will help this remarkable facility realize its vast potential”.
Once XFEL is completed in 2015 its facilities will spread from Hamburg, along 3.4 kilometers of tunnels to the town of Schenefeld where laboratories, experiment stations and administration buildings will be held. The Hamburg end of XFEL will be housed at the DESY electron synchrotron facilities that has been experimenting with particle accelerators since 1959. Not strictly a joint facility as both DESY and XFEL are funded separately – XFEL is 25% Russian investment – the combined facilities will obviously still have advantages.
The heavy lifting work of the system is done by the 2.1km long section of the tunnel that houses the superconducting linear accelerators that will speed electrons down the track till they are close to the speed of light. At the end of the tunnel a series of powerful magnets – undulators – will curve the electron beam causing the electrons to emit x-rays, hyper emit as the scientist say. This is the most intense form of x-ray radiation produced by man, with a peak brilliance a billion times higher than modern x-ray sources. This source also produces a very tightly bound and evenly spaced x-ray radiation, perfect for capturing high-speed video.
The X-Rays are focused into 5 beams, also through the use of magnet undulators, and sent to the subject and then onto the camera. All of this should yield images of chemical reactions, the atomic structure of molecules and real photo’s of nano sized objects. This is the first true 3D imaging system for molecules.
The jewel in the XFEL crown is the X-Ray Camera designed to capture the miniature action shots. STFC – Science and Technology Facilities Council – in collaboration with Glasgow University have been contracted by XFEL to build the camera. STFC is a UK government research body that carries out civil science and engineering research. Some of the UK’s oldest research laboratories are part of STFC including the legendary RAL – Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – that were one of the first nuclear / high energy research labs in the world.
The go ahead for the camera was given following a recent visit to STFC by a delegation from the European XFEL’s Detector Advisory Committee. STFC has a special camera on the drawing boards for XFEL. Being able to shoot at 4.5 million frames a second is just the opening act, that’s it’s bread and butter. Shooting in real-time and 3D allows the camera to capture Holographic images and movies of the subject. The X-Ray camera will be the first device installed in an end workstation-station at XFEL. There are 5 work-stations at the laboratory end of the facility, available for research work, the X-Ray camera will occupy one of these end-stations.
The ability to see chemical reactions happening, the details of a virus at the atomic scale or the atomic structure of metals all become viable research options with XFEL and the X-Ray camera. While it is too early to say exactly what we will discover at XFEL but discover things we will. Once operational the ability to record the nano world in action instead of flying blind will be a huge change. The technology behind XFEL is the next leap for researchers, even the best electron microscopes could be considered like a blind man feeling someones face to know how they look, XFEL takes us from feeling faces to taking holographic pictures.
Buddha’s Brother out…