European XFEL: Here's all that you need to know about the world's largest X-ray laser

XFEL is capable of generating 27,000 X-ray laser flashes per second.

  • Published: September 4, 2017 6:13 PM IST

A super powerful X-ray laser, which will enable scientists to penetrate into the minutest of particles to get insight into their atoms, viruses, and chemical reactions, has been unveiled in Germany. Called, European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL), is the world’s largest X-ray laser, capable of generating 27,000 X-ray laser flashes per second, and its luminance is a billion times greater than any previously used x-ray source. Here’s an overview of the mega project.

What’s so special

To give you an idea, conventional X-ray sources can emit only 100 pulses out per second. The idea is to essentially enable researchers to finally have a look inside fast moving atoms and molecules that are hard to fathom for the human eye or existing systems. The laser has been set inside a 3.4-kilometre tunnel below the northern city of Hamburg.

How does it work

The system emits powerful laser into metal, which then sends bundles of electrons through a superconducting linear accelerator, the world’s longest at 1.7-kilometres. As the electrons hurtle through the tube, which has a temperature of -271 degrees centigrade, they are charged by microwaves in order to reach nearly the speed of light. Next, thousands of alternating magnets send these electrons onto a tight ‘slalom’ course. These electrons then gather into a multitude of ultra thin discs, which allows them to emit their light in sync and produce intense X-ray flashes of laser light. When this hits a material, it creates a strobe-like series of pictures with an ultrashort ‘shutter speed’ of a billionth of a second, which can be then merged to create 3-D images or films.


The XFEL could allow researchers from across the world to, for instance, map the atomic details of viruses, take 3-D images of the molecular make-up of cells, or film chemical reactions as they happen. It is “like a camera and a microscope that will make it possible to see more tiny details and processes in the nano-world than ever before,” Robert Feidenhans’l, chairman of the project’s management board, told AFP. This has great potential in the field of medicine as many difficult to treat illnesses could be diagnosed. ALSO READ: Elon Musk reveals SpaceX spacesuit to make astronauts look stylish in space

In other applications, researchers could scan through a building material to arrive at what causes it to tear or crack. For space or earth research, the laser can aid in creating extreme pressure and temperatures to study processes like those at the Earth’s core.

Time and money involved

The XFEL is headed by the Hamburg research center Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (Desy), which has operated a particle accelerator since the 1960s. It took eight years to build with funding from 11 countries, and is being touted as one of the largest and most ambitious European research projects ever. Of the $1.7 billion building cost, Germany contributed about 58 percent of the cost while Russia paid about 27 percent. Other partners include Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, with stakes of one to three percent each. Britain is also expected to join in the project. ALSO READ: NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson lands safely on Earth after a record breaking 288 day mission

  • Published Date: September 4, 2017 6:13 PM IST