Number of the Month: 27,000 flashes per second

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Imagine you could watch how individual atoms react with one another – live and in slow motion. Or study nanomaterials right down to the very finest detail. Or watch a film showing what it is like inside stars and planets. In short, imagine you could solve some of the mysteries that have been puzzling scientists for centuries. Or does that sound more like science fiction to you?

In fact, scientists around the world have previously only been able to dream of such experiments. Yet what sounds beyond belief is now to become a reality: in October 2016, a potentially record-breaking research device went into operation in the North German city of Hamburg. Named the European XFEL, it is a device that can only be described in superlatives. With its help, it will be possible from 2017 to take photographs and films of even the most minute atomic details and incredibly fast chemical reactions. So how is this achieved?

How does the new super-machine work?

European XFEL in Hamburg

Over the past few years, a gigantic X-ray laser has been built 36 metres underground. It can emit up to 27,000 ultrashort laser flashes per second. Not only is it the world’s biggest X-ray laser; it is also the world’s brightest X-ray source. In total, the European XFEL is more than three kilometres long. At its heart is a 1.7-kilometre-long superconducting particle accelerator. The ultrashort laser flashes are combined to generate an extremely powerful laser beam. This beam is unfathomably bright – ten trillion times brighter than the sun. This allows incredibly quick processes to be documented on film and in photographic images.

Why the XFEL may be able to solve many scientific mysteries

What the films and photographs will reveal is nothing short of sensational, benefiting researchers in all kinds of different fields. Biologists will be granted insights into cell constituents, individual protein molecules and viruses – allowing diseases to be combated more effectively and more efficacious drugs developed. Professor Massimo Altarelli, the director of the European XFEL, talks with great excitement about “live reporting of atomic processes” and “reports from the nano cosmos”, explaining that this may make it possible to manufacture tailor-made drugs because the X-ray laser allows protein structures to be identified more accurately.

Innovative solar modules, future data storage media

Physicists and materials scientists will be able to take detailed images of nanomaterials, allowing them to study their precise structure. This will permit the development of important materials for the future, such as more efficient solar modules and fuel cells, and of materials for future data storage media. Astrophysicists are also looking forward to seeing the images of samples of compressed matter that the European XFEL will provide. This will enable them to analyse the inside of stars and planets and ascertain the extent to which fusion processes may be a suitable new source of energy.

Unravelling the mysteries in an international environment

The machine was built and is operated by a company that shares its name: the European XFEL GmbH. Its main shareholder is the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY, a research centre of the Helmholtz Association. The project has cost more than one billion euros and is an international undertaking. Besides Germany, ten other countries are involved, including France, Italy and Russia. Researchers all over the world are interested in the device. At the European XFEL, international research groups can use the complex instruments to conduct their experiments over a period of days or weeks. Together, they are setting out to unravel some of the mysteries of science.