A look at the world's most powerful X-ray laser

Just down the street from a cluster of venture capital firms on Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road is the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a sprawling, 426-acre site where researchers are pushing the boundaries in physics, chemistry and materials science.

Their work helps fuel breakthroughs in areas including electronics and information technology, and researchers there have contributed to projects that won six Nobel Prizes.

Twenty-five feet underground lies a 2-mile linear accelerator that passes beneath nearby Interstate 280. Electrons zip through the accelerator at nearly 670 million miles per hour, a fraction slower than the speed of light.


A model of the linear accelerator at SLAC

As microprocessors get faster and memory chips cram in more data, scientists are getting closer to the very boundaries of physics. That makes it essential to peer deep inside materials to see how they work at the atomic level.

Central to the work at SLAC is the world’s most powerful X-ray laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source. It’s the first laser to produce hard X-rays that allow scientists to see down to the level of atoms and molecules.

“There’s no other place in the world where you can find short, coherent, X-ray pulses like the ones here, and that enable [scientists] to really rip apart atoms—sometimes literally—and look at how electrons are behaving in those atoms,” said Bill Schlotter, an instrument scientist at the LCLS.

For researchers, getting the opportunity to conduct an experiment at SLAC is a competitive process. An international committee of scientists reviews proposals from around the world, and twice a year it selects only one in every five projects.

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An experimental instrument used by scientists at the Linac Coherent Light Source at SLAC

Stanford professor Aaron Lindenberg, who is researching future data storage systems, was among those selected, and given 60 hours to conduct an experiment at SLAC. Lindenberg used the high-powered X-ray to observe the way atoms move in a nanoscale device.

The results are still being processed, but Lindenberg said early data suggests the experiment was a success.

“After I emerged from underground here, it was sort of an interesting thing to look back and think, wow, we started this four or five years ago, trying to answer these questions, and actually, maybe now we have answers to some of them,” he said.

Updated at 11:25 p.m. PT with a video report from IDG News Service.

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