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Linear Accelerator Center Dedicates World’s Largest, Most Powerful Laser

Scientists and Energy Secretary Steven Chu promise the X-ray laser will be a key tool in future scientific research.

With flashes 10 billion times brighter than any existing lasers and pulses that shoot rays at 1/10 of a trillionth of a second, the world's largest and most powerful X-ray laser has found a home at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). Last month, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Director John Galayda dedicated the new SLAC X-ray laser, issuing a new era in science, they said. 

At that speed and brightness, the three-kilometer long laser—or Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS)— can zap images of molecules zipping at the speed of light. Scientists can study the crystal-clear snapshots and view the detailed structure of the tiniest molecules. Secretary Chu insisted that the $420 million project will be a tool that enables infinite science exploration.

"The payoff is astounding," Secretary Chu said. "We now know the secrets of nature. We can look under rocks that we had never even seen before."

While movies of molecules won't be winning any Oscars, scientists said tracking this movement will be the foundation of research in a gamut of fields from photosynthesis to photovoltaics.

By understanding the atoms in such a comprehensive way, scientists can analyze proteins that are the root cause of diseases like Alzheimers and a number of cancers, SLAC graduate student Daniel Ratner said. Scientists can create pharmaceuticals that fit right into the destructive protein and combat it.

Congressmembers Mike Honda and Zoe Lofgren of the 15th and 16th District compared the new technology to what Ansel Adams did with strobe photography. In 1892, Leland Stanford bet that during a gallop, all four of a horse's hooves do not touch the ground. He commissioned Ansel Adams to take several photographs of a moving horse. The photographer did indeed capture a shot in which all four hooves were airborne and Stanford won the bet.

"But this laser isn't a bet," Lofgren said. "This is innovation."

With the laser, scientists can similarly capture images of frenzied atoms that are 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of hair.

"The laser has the power to produce kaleidoscopic images of particles that look like fireworks," Galayda said. "In labs, you can hear scientists gasp as they watch electrons move as if the particles were playing musical chairs."

With these images, scientists are primarily focused on truly understanding the composition of atoms. Others have taken this and applied it to studies of the transformative properties of magnetic rust. Additional research on magnetism can aid scientists in computer research.  

But this is just the beginning of the research and innovation, Ratner said. To date, scientists from Europe and the U.S. have submitted over 850 proposals to use the laser in conjunction with their research. A SLAC committee has selected 300 to use the facility.

At a time when the economy is in a "doldrum," Secretary Chu said, the laser can spur a wealth of jobs in the U.S.

"No one thought it would work, but we knew we had done a complete job on the laser," Ratner said. In the dedication video, numerous scientists said they celebrated when the switch was flicked and the laser successfully beamed photos on the first try. Not to mention that SLAC completed the project on time and under budget, Secretary Chu added.

But the laser will require a team of over 600 to monitor and run the complex technology. At over three kilometers, every part of the laser must be perfectly positioned and functioning with precision. Temperature changes and a mere millimeter of movement can affect the entire operation.

In its first stage, the laser creates electrons in a vacuum that is devoid of any other matter. The electrons zip to the "Undulator Hall" where over 3,000 magnets shake the electrons, which produce the X-rays. The x-rays combine with more electrons to produce the laser. The laser shoots beams at the electrons with a duration of 50 femtoseconds. To put that time into perspective, Ratner said there are more femtoseconds in a minute than there are minutes in the history of a the universe. It would take one of those beams less than one fiftieth of a second to travel across the country.

"We can now understand nature in its own time scale," instrument scientist John Bozek said.

With the increase in scientific funding under the Recovery Act, an increasing number of university students and scientists will have access to the groundbreaking piece of technology.

"The discovery of today is the basis of the applications for tomorrow," Secretary Chu said. "Stay tuned." 

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