First Lasing European XFEL © XFEL/Desy

European XFEL generates first laser light

World's biggest X-ray laser now operational - official opening scheduled for September

The European XFEL, the world’s biggest X-ray laser and located in the Hamburg Metropolitan Region, has reached the last major milestone before the official opening in September, a press release said Thursday. The 3.4 km long facility, most of which is located in underground tunnels, has generated its first X-ray laser light. The X-ray light has a wavelength of 0.8 nm – about 500 times shorter than that of visible light. At first lasing, the laser had a repetition rate of one pulse per second, which will later increase to 27,000 per second.

Official opening in September

Katharina Fegebank, Senator for Science, Research and Equality, said: “Researchers at European XFEL, DESY and at many international partners have successfully reached the last major milestone with the first lasing. This highlights once again the good co-operation at the research centre in Hamburg. Now, I am looking forward to the offical opening in September. The European XFEL will finally become the ‘place to be’ for scientists worldwide and make the Hamburg Metropolitan Region a world leader in X-ray light research.“

Diverse applications for XFEL

The European XFEL’s X-ray laser light is extremely intense and a billion times brighter than that of conventional synchrotron light sources. The achievable laser light wavelength corresponds to the size of an atom, meaning that the X-rays can be used to make pictures and films of the nanocosmos at atomic resolutions – such as of biomolecules, from which better understanding of the basis of illnesses or the development of new therapies can be developed. Other opportunities include research into chemical processes and catalytic techniques to improve their efficiency or make them more environmentally friendly; materials research; or the investigation of conditions similar to the interior of planets.

Successful European collaboration

Prof. Robert Feidenhans’l, Managing Director of European XFEL, noted: “This is an important moment that our partners and we have worked towards for many years. The European XFEL has generated its first X-ray laser light. The facility, to which many countries around the world contributed know-how and components, has passed its first big test with flying colours. The colleagues involved at European XFEL, DESY, and our international partners have accomplished outstanding work. This is also a great success for scientific collaboration in Europe and across the world. We can now begin to direct the X-ray flashes with special mirrors through the last tunnel section into the experiment hall, and then step by step start the commissioning of the experiment stations. I very much look forward to the start of international user operation, which is planned for September.”

Faster experiments

The X-ray laser light was generated by an electron beam from a superconducting linear accelerator, the key component of the X-ray laser. The German research centre DESY, the largest shareholder of the European XFEL, put the accelerator into operation in late April. The 3.4 km long European XFEL is the largest and most powerful of the five X-ray lasers worldwide, with the ability to generate the short pulses of hard X-ray light. More than 27,000 light flashes per second instead of the previous maximum of 120 per second, an extremely high luminosity, and the parallel operation of several experiment stations will allow scientists to investigate more limited samples and perform faster experiments. The facility will increase the amount of “beamtime” available, as the capacity at other X-ray lasers worldwide has been eclipsed by demand, and facilities have been overbooked.

The X-ray laser is due to be officially opened in early September. Then, external users can perform experiments at the first two of six scientific instruments.

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About European XFEL

The Hamburg Metropolitan Region can now boast a research facility of superlatives: The European XFEL will generate ultrashort X-ray flashes – 27,000 times per second and with a brilliance that is a billion times higher than that of the best conventional X-ray radiation sources. The outstanding characteristics of the facility are unique worldwide. From 2017, it will open up completely new research opportunities for scientists and industrial users. They can use the X-ray flashes of the European XFEL to map the atomic details of viruses, decipher the molecular composition of cells, take three-dimensional images of the nanoworld, film chemical reactions, and study processes such as those occurring deep inside planets. The European XFEL GmbH is a non-profit research organization that works closely with DESY resarch centre and other international institutions and has around 280 employees.

About DESY

The Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) is Germany’s leading, international accelerator centre. It operates particle accelerators used to investigate the structure of matter. DESY conducts a broad spectrum of inter-disciplinary scientific research in three main areas: particle and high energy physics; photon science; and the development, construction and operation of particle accelerators. Its name refers to its first project, an electron synchrotron. DESY is a member of the Helmholtz Association and operates at sites in Hamburg and Zeuthen near Berlin. It is financed to 90 per cent by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research and to 10 per cent by the states of Hamburg and Brandenburg. In addition to operating its own large accelerator facilities, DESY also provides consulting services to research initiatives, institutes and universities. It is closely involved in major international projects such as the European X-Ray Free-Electron Laser in which it is the main shareholder.
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