World's most powerful X-ray laser now boasts pulses that arrive up to a million times per second

Researchers that need to examine extremely small items or quick phenomena are in luck. The world's most powerful X-ray laser is back in operation after a nine-year overhaul – and it's even more powerful than before.

The Linac Coherent Light Source II (LCLS II) at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California, is the instrument. The cryogenic particle accelerator, which reopened on Tuesday, is kept at a temperature of -456° F, or 2 kelvins, which is colder than deep space. Its job? To use magnets to make electrons jitter and accelerate them to almost the speed of light. X-rays are produced by the jittering subatomic particles.

LCLS II's predecessor was responsible for a sequence of key particle physics discoveries that earned three Nobel Prizes in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Although modern devices like the Large Hadron Collider are better adapted to resolving the most fundamental questions concerning the nature of reality, the LCLS II is far from obsolete. 

The LCLS-II upgrade lets the world's most powerful X-ray laser fire a million bursts per second, each one up to 10,000 times brighter than those of its predecessor

The machine's X-ray bursts are extremely effective for intimately inspecting cells or monitoring chemical processes in real time. According to a release from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the updated system can create up to one million X-ray bursts every second.

A significant amount of X-ray pulses

“In just a few hours, LCLS-II will produce more X-ray pulses than the current laser has generated in its entire lifetime,” stated Mike Dunne, director of LCLS, in the press release.

“Data that once might have taken months to collect could be produced in minutes. It will take X-ray science to the next level, paving the way for a whole new range of studies and advancing our ability to develop revolutionary technologies to address some of the most profound challenges facing our society.”

A long journey

LCLS's journey began back in April 2009, when it successfully created X-ray pulses a billion times brighter than anything previously seen. It did it by accelerating electrons via a copper pipe at normal temperature, which set a new world record. However, this limited the rate of X-ray pulses to 120 per second.

Then, in 2013, SLAC launched the LCLS-II upgrade project, which involved dismantling part of the original copper accelerator and replacing it with 37 cryogenic accelerator modules, thereby turning it into a superconducting accelerator.

“Unlike the copper accelerator powering LCLS, which operates at ambient temperature, the LCLS-II superconducting accelerator operates at 2 kelvins, only about 4 degrees Fahrenheit above absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature,” said Eric Fauve, head of SLAC's Cryogenic Division.

“To reach this temperature, the linac is equipped with two world-class helium cryoplants, making SLAC one of the significant cryogenic landmarks in the U.S. and on the globe. The SLAC Cryogenics team has worked on site throughout the pandemic to install and commission the cryogenic system and cool down the accelerator in record time.”

The device ultimately attained a temperature of 2 K on April 15, 2022, allowing it to begin beginning operations on May 10, 2022. The accelerator may currently be used for a range of applications in computers, communications, sustainable industries, renewable energy technologies, medicines, and quantum mechanics. That's something to get enthusiastic about!
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