Introducing the world's most powerful laser: the European XFEL

1 September 2017

The largest, most powerful laser in existence, with a brilliance that is a billion times higher than any other conventional X-ray radiation source, is about to open up completely new research opportunities for researchers the world over. Scientists and engineers from across the globe have been proudly celebrating the official opening of the European X-Ray Free Electron Laser (European XFEL) in Schenefeld in the metropolitan area of Hamburg, Germany. At 3.4 km long, the European XFEL is now complete and ready for its first experiments to commence.

European XFEL in a flash

Generating ultrashort X-ray flashes, at 27,000 times per second, the science applications of the European XFEL are immense - it will enable scientists to map the atomic details of viruses, take 3D images of the nanoworld, film chemical reactions as they happen, and unlock processes occurring deep inside plants – and that’s just for starters.

UK scientists at STFC have played a major role in the design and development of a cutting edge X-ray camera for the European XFEL, the Large Pixel Detector, which was very recently installed in July 2017.

4.5 million frames per second!

4 people standing around the Large Pixel Detector exchanging keys

Handing over the keys to the Large Pixel Detector, from left to right: STFC Technology Department Division Head Marcus French, European XFEL Detector Group Leader Dr Markus Kuster, European XFEL Managing Director Professor Dr Robert Feidenhans'l and STFC Application Engineer Matthew Hart.
(Credit: European XFEL)

The Large Pixel Detector (LPD) is one of the world’s fastest detectors. Recording images at a rate of 4.5 million frames per second – fast enough to keep up with the European XFEL’s 27,000 pulses per second, which are arranged into short high speed bursts. It will enable users to take clear snapshots of ultrafast processes such as chemical reactions as they take place.

The LPD operates far beyond the scope of any commercial detector or camera. Its design enables the detector to capture an image every 222 nanoseconds (billionths of a second) – an unprecedented rate that allows it to capture individual ultrashort X-ray laser flashes from the European XFEL.

“It’s such a great feeling to see the detector installed ready for experiments. It’s taken 10 years of development to meet some really challenging requirements and it’s finally time to see it working for real. Now the detector is in the hands of scientists at XFEL and I’m really looking forward to hearing about their research and the discoveries they will make.” Matthew Hart, STFC project lead for LPD

In addition to the LPD, STFC’s Central Laser Facility is currently building a DiPOLE100 laser for the European XFEL, where it will be used to recreate the conditions found within stars. The UK, through the STFC-funded Diamond Light Source, is also the host for the UK’s XFEL hub, which will enable users to fully prepare for their experiments with XFELs. There will also be a dedicated fibre link from Hamburg to Harwell enabling users to carry out data analysis back in the UK, with support from the UK Hub team.

International project

A project of this size and nature is thanks to multinational collaboration and science-led innovation. The European XFEL is a major multinational project, with 11 current member states. Thanks to UK government’s £30 million investment, the UK will shortly become the 12th member of the project later this year.

“Having been associated with the XFEL project from the early days back in 2003 I am very proud and pleased to have worked on our re-engagement with the project enabling to UK to join before the end of the construction phase.” Neil Pratt, Head of Light Sources and Neutrons Division at STFC

Light of the Future

What is an X-ray Free Electron Laser anyway?

Free Electron Lasers (FEL) are at the cutting edge of scientific research, with the huge potential to tackle global challenges, from drug development to producing hydrogen powered fuels. FELs allow us to look at things on a much closer scale. Like other lasers, they rely on light, and to do this they use electrons. These electrons are driven by a particle accelerator to incredibly high speeds. They are then passed through series of magnets in such a way that creates bunches of electrons, and during this process induced to emit ultrashort bursts of the light.

This light can then be aimed at a target within a sample station. This interaction between the light and the sample is captured using a detector. Unlike standard lasers and synchrotron light sources, FELs can produce light at a range of frequencies. They are the most flexible, high power and efficient generators of tuneable coherent light from infra-red to X-rays. European XFEL, the worlds’ largest, most powerful laser, can generate 27,000 X-ray flashes per second.

This power allows scientists to observe reactions that are happening on the atomic and molecular scales, opening up totally new avenues of research, beyond reach of other types of X-ray or laser facility.

Further information about European XFEL.

Tunnel flight September 2016

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000