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Unique Experiments at European X-Ray laser XFEL

New options for materials research, ultrafast chemistry and structural biology. Helmholtz to fund Desy's XFEL with 30 million euro

The Helmholtz Senate has given the green light for the Association’s involvement in a new kind of experimentation station at the European XFEL in Hamburg, with the Helmholtz International User Consortia funding the XFEL with 30 million euro. The largest portion of the funding goes to the Helmholtz International Beamline for Extreme Fields (HIBEF), which will contribute essential components to the High-Energy Density Science (HED) instrument. Other funds go to the Serial Femtosecond Crystallography (SFX) user consortium and the h-RIXS measurement station for resonant inelastic scattering experiments. The Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and the research centre DESY had applied for the funding for the international user consortia.

Experiments under Extreme Conditions

The goal is that, starting in 2018, the HIBEF infrastructures at HED will be used to conduct experiments under extreme conditions of high pressures, temperatures, or electromagnetic fields. The insights gleaned from these experiments will help improve models of planetary birth, among other things, and will also provide a basis for innovations in materials research and fusion technologies. “There is a great deal of interest in the joint extreme lab on the part of the international community,” says HZDR Scientific Director Prof. Roland Sauerbrey. “Some 100 institutes have already signaled their interest in our research facility.” The HZDR will be contributing a facility for materials research using high magnetic fields and a high power laser for ultrashort light pulses capable of heating electrons at the material surface to a temperature of several billion degrees Celsius. In the process, a special state of matter – a plasma, consisting of electrons and ions – is produced.

Hotter than 10,000° Celsius

An additional goal is that inside special diamond-anvil cells made by DESY, extremely high pressures of up to ten million bars and temperatures in the range of 1,500 to almost 10,000°C can be achieved.At the high-power laser DiPOLE, a contribution to HIBEF from Oxford University and the British science organization Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), matter is subjected to states of extreme pressure and temperatures on the order of several 1000°C. The states produced within the sample are similar to those found at the cores of planets. “We’re charting new scientific territory by paving the way for the types of experiments that up to now could not be performed,” says Prof. Helmut Dosch, chairman of the DESY Board of Directors, one of the consortium partners and a chief partner of the European XFEL.

Top-Notch European Research facility

However, extreme conditions can only ever be produced for a few fractions of a second – which is why the extremely short and high-intensity X-ray laser flashes of the European XFEL lend themselves nicely to their analysis. “The new station allows us to replicate extreme conditions existing in outer space right here on Earth and examine them using X-ray laser light,” explains Prof. Massimo Altarelli, chairman of the European XFEL Management Board. “We are very pleased that potential users are highly committed to helping us build a top-notch European research facility.”

Biomolecules in Focus

The SFX user consortium will enable the determination of the atomic structure and function of biomolecules from extremely small crystals at the Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules and Serial Femtosecond Crystallography (SPB/SFX) instrument. The structure of biomolecules is fundamentally important to their function, and decoding them is of essential importance to understanding the chemical foundations of life and numerous illnesses. Many biomolecules cannot be crystallized to a large enough extent to be successfully studied using conventional X-ray crystallography methods. With a high-throughput rate, the SPB/SFX instrument would enable such investigations. The international SFX user consortium is led by DESY and includes partners from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Slovakia, and the United States.

European Consortium

With help from inelastic scattering experiments, scientists would be able to follow the steps of chemical reactions in near-real time, during which researchers would be able to observe individual types of atoms. The Heisenberg Resonant Inelastic X-Ray Scattering (h-RIXS) user consortium will contribute high-resolution spectrometers to the Spectroscopy and Coherent Scattering (SCS) instrument. The user consortium includes scientists from Germany, Finland, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Geosciences, materials research, astrophysics, and plasma physics as well as structural biology and superfast chemical processes – the ultimate goal being to combine the European XFEL analytic tool with the most powerful magnetic fields currently available or experimental options of optical laser systems is to glean new insights into previously hidden processes within matter and materials. Thanks to the Helmholtz Senate’s 24 June 2015 decision, the Helmholtz stations will become reality. The final decision for the financial support remains now with the funding bodies on the federal and state level.
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