Thursday, March 10, 2016

SLAC's X-ray laser--a little-known advance equal to moon shot?

According to some, the future of science--spawning the electronics, medications, and energy solutions we will need--comes from being able to see atoms and molecules at work.

For that, you need a special light--such as an X-ray light with a wavelength as small as an atom, pulsing at the rate of femtoseconds. A femtosecond is to s second what a second is to 32 million years. In other words--fast.

Six years ago, the Dept of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Lab answered the call of the scientific community and built an X-ray-free electronic laser--the XFEL.

Since 2009, this powerful "microscope" has generated molecular "movies," gotten a glimpse of a chemical bond, traced electrons moving through materials, and made 3-D pictures of proteins leading to drug discoveries.

Such machines have now proliferated all over the world. Check out the March issue of Reviews of Modern Physics for an overview of the first five years of progress.

Some high spots:

Next-gen computers and the power grid.  The Linac Coherent Light Source or  LCLS, as it's called, is homing in on new computer components surpassing old limits on what computers can do.

Better, cleaner fuels and chemicals. Using this technology, scientists can now measure never-seen-before steps in chemical reactions, helping them design better fuels, fertilizers and industrial chemicals.

More effective meds with fewer side effects. Half of all medications on the market target receptor proteins on the outer layers of cells--we can now see how the meds dock on the cells. The LCLS technology allows smaller crystals to be examined as well as crystals too easily damaged by conventional X-rays.

Renewable energy that mimics nature. LCLS has allowed us to see how plants use energy from sunlight (photosynthesis), It can measure steps in the process not seen before.

Fusion reactions and seeing inside planets. High-power laser systems heat matter to millions of degrees and crush it with billions of tons of pressure. This allows scientists to see test resilience of materials and to see conditions as they might be at the heart of planets, which may lead to learning how solar systems form.

Located in Menlo Park, Calif, the DOE's SLAC lab attracts hundreds of scientists from around the globe.

This is an example of a US Govt basic research "challenge" that will be worth every penny spent.

For more info, go to gov or