Engineers who have been toiling on the world’s most powerful X-ray laser for more than a decade have finally achieved first light with the instrument, meaning the science behind the newly charged machine is almost over.
The laser is a Linac (short for linear accelerator) Coherent Light Source-II, or LCLS-II, and will be used to produce high-energy X-rays that are used to observe the tiniest, most subtle machinations of matter and its interactions. Gizmodo did a full breakdown of LCLS last year and you can log out photos from inside the accelerator structure here.
LCLS-II will generate one million X-ray pulses per second, a huge improvement over the original LCLS 120 pulses per second. The new X-rays will be 10,000 times brighter than those generated by its predecessor and literally illuminates phenomena that are not observable with the original machine.
“Now that there are so many more photons, there are so many more X-rays to do science with,” Andrew Burrill, associate director of the accelerator’s directorate laboratory, he told Gizmodo in fall 2021. “If you’re collecting data… it takes a long time at 120 frames per second.” But at a million shots per second, it takes no time at all.”
“Light from SLAC’s LCLS-II will illuminate the smallest and fastest phenomena in the universe and lead to major discoveries in fields ranging from human health to quantum materials science,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a SLAC release. “This upgrade to the most powerful X-ray laser in existence keeps the United States at the forefront of X-ray science and provides a window into how our world works at the atomic level.”
The two-mile-long accelerator is part of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and is located beneath Menlo Park, California, where for 14 years it has produced X-rays that scientists can then use to observe everything from the hardest metals to photosynthesis. For the $1 billion LCLS-II, engineers had to build a cryogenic plant and cool the linear accelerator to -456 degrees Fahrenheit (-271 degreeswith Celsius).
“I have been working on LCLS projects for 17 years. I worked on the first, saw the second from the cradle to the grave, and started the third,” said Greg Hays, director of the LCLS-II project, in a video interview with Gizmodo. “It was most of my adult career. It’s huge for me. What SLAC and the Department of Energy are providing here is a tool that will be used for science for two or three decades.”
Eric Fauve, Cryoplant Manager, he told Gizmodo in 2021 that first light was expected in the fall of 2022. But as always, timelines shift, and in March, high winds knocked over trees on the SLAC campus and knocked out power to the linear accelerator for three days. The accelerator got hot and had to be cooled back to its freezing temperatures. The wind event ended up costing the team five months.
Achieving first light means that the LCLS-II teams at SLAC have demonstrated the X-ray parameters needed to complete the project. No science has yet been done with LCLS-II – the first users of the upgraded accelerator will arrive in November – and the next few months will be occupied with final checks to ensure the upgraded accelerator is ready for science. Final commissioning of LCLS-II will continue over the next few years.
But buckle up. Whether you’re interested in movies of molecules or improving the efficiency of phone batteries, the future of science and technologygy now takes place down the hill in Menlo Park.
More: I walked inside America’s newest particle accelerator