SLAC fires up the world’s most powerful X-ray laser: LCLS-II ushers in a new era of science

by Contributed Content on September 18, 2023

The newly upgraded Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL) at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park successfully produced its first X-rays, and researchers around the world are already lined up to kick off an ambitious science program.

The upgrade, called LCLS-II, creates unparalleled capabilities that will usher in a new era in research with X-rays. Scientists will be able to examine the details of quantum materials with unprecedented resolution to drive new forms of computing and communications; reveal unpredictable and fleeting chemical events to teach us how to create more sustainable industries and clean energy technologies; study how biological molecules carry out life’s functions to develop new types of pharmaceuticals; and study the world on the fastest timescales to open up entirely new fields of scientific investigation.

“This achievement marks the culmination of over a decade of work,” said Greg Hays, the LCLS-II Project Director. “It shows that all the different elements of LCLS-II are working in harmony to produce X-ray laser light in an entirely new mode of operation.”

Reaching “first light” is the result of a series of key milestones that started in 2010 with the vision of upgrading the original LCLS and blossomed into a multi-year ($1.1 billion) upgrade project involving thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians across DOE, as well as numerous institutional partners.

“This upgrade will keep SLAC and the US at the forefront of X-ray science,” said Stephen Streiffer, SLAC’s interim Laboratory Director. “It’s all thanks to the amazing efforts of all parts of our laboratory in collaboration with the wider project team.”

Taking X-ray science to a new level

XFELs produce ultra-bright, ultra-short pulses of X-ray light that allow scientists to capture the behavior of molecules, atoms, and electrons with unprecedented detail on the natural timescales on which chemistry, biology, and material changes occur. XFELs have been instrumental in many scientific achievements, including the creation of the first “molecular movie” to study complex chemical processes, watching in real time the way in which plants and algae absorb sunlight to produce all the oxygen we breathe, and studying the extreme conditions that drive the evolution of planets and phenomena such as diamond rain.

LCLS, the world’s first hard XFEL, produced its first light in April 2009, generating X-ray pulses a billion times brighter than anything that had come before. It accelerates electrons through a copper pipe at room temperature, which limits its rate to 120 X-ray pulses per second.

“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. “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. Congratulations to the incredibly talented engineers and researchers at SLAC who have poured so much into this project over the past several years, all in the pursuit of knowledge.”

The LCLS-II upgrade takes X-ray science to a whole new level: It can produce up to a million X-ray pulses per second, 8,000 times more than LCLS, and produce an almost continuous X-ray beam that on average will be 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor — a world record for today’s most powerful X-ray light sources.

“The LCLS’s history of world-leading science will continue to grow with these upgraded capabilities,” said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Director of DOE’s Office of Science. “I really look forward to the impact of LCLS-II and the user community on national science priorities, ranging from fundamental science research in chemistry, materials, biology, and more; application of the science advances for clean energy; and ensuring national security through initiatives like quantum information science.”

Play this video for a simple explanation of what an XFEL is and what kind of research scientists can do with this engineering marvel. (Olivier Bonin/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

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