Science and Technology Facilities Council
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Super laser developed in the UK will help scientists create the conditions found inside planets

A unique laser developed at the UK’s Central Laser Facility will allow scientists working at European XFEL to create conditions simulating the interior of Earth-type planets for the first time.

The UK is a core partner in the European X-Ray Free Electron Laser (European XFEL) facility in Germany. XFEL is the largest, most powerful X-Ray laser in existence, with a brilliance that is a billion times higher than any other conventional X-ray radiation source. By using this new laser, DiPOLE 100-X, in combination with the extremely bright, intense X-ray beam produced by the XFEL, scientists will be able to probe the atomic structure and dynamics of materials under the extreme conditions found within the core of a planet where temperatures can be up to 10,000°C and pressures can be up to 10,000 tonnes per square centimetre.

Scientists have already discovered more than 3,000 planets outside our own solar system. What these planets are composed of, their mass, pressure and temperature conditions found in and on these planets is not yet known. The experimental set-up being developed at XFEL will allow X-ray diffraction and spectroscopy techniques that could simulate these conditions on Earth.

“It is thought that the form of elements such as carbon and iron found on some of these exoplanets does not exist elsewhere” says Ulf Zastrau, group leader at the instrument for High-Energy Density science at European XFEL. “Until now, it has not been technically possible to study these fascinating worlds before, because we could not create such extreme temperatures and pressures in the lab. Now, with the arrival of the new DiPOLE 100-X laser at European XFEL we are a step closer to being able to study the behavior, composition and conditions of these planets. This really opens up an entirely new field of scientific exploration.”

A joint XFEL and the Science and Technology Facilities Council CLF team of scientists and engineers is already busy installing the DiPOLE 100-X laser in the underground laser “hutch” and commissioning experiments will begin in the summer.  Integration and synchronisation with the XFEL beam will follow, with experimental time available from next year.

Professor John Collier, CLF Director, said: “I am delighted that CLF’s latest generation of DiPOLE laser technology is being installed on the European XFEL.  The unique combination of DiPOLE laser radiation with the XFEL beam will transform laboratory astrophysics and the study of matter in extreme conditions.  DiPOLE’s high repetition rate will deliver a step-change in the speed of data collection, producing orders of magnitude improvements in the accuracy of our measurements and the ability to detect previously unobservable effects.”

In addition to developing and building the DiPOLE laser for XFEL UK scientists at STFC also played a major role in the design and development of a cutting edge X-ray camera for the facility. The Large Pixel Detector (LPD) was installed at XFEL in 2017 and records 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. The LPD enables users to take clear snapshots of ultrafast processes such as chemical reactions as they take place.

Further information

Construction of the DiPOLE 100-X laser was funded by joint equipment grants from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), both part of UK Research and Innovation.

The UK was European XFEL’s twelfth member state. The UK is represented in European XFEL by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) as shareholder.

About STFC’s Central Laser Facility

The Central Laser Facility (CLF) at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is one of the world’s leading laser facilities providing scientists from the UK and Europe with an unparalleled range of state of the art technology. CLF’s facilities range from advanced, compact tuneable lasers which can pinpoint individual particles to high power laser installations that recreate the conditions inside stars.

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.


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