World's most powerful x-ray laser unveiled

August 16, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Here's a new time measurement for your vocabulary -- 'femtosecond.'

String a hundred femtoseconds together and one-tenth of a billionth of a second will have passed.

Esoteric? Yes.

Practical? Yes, to that, as well, for physicists at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where Monday, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, among others, will dedicate the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), the world's most powerful x-ray laser, which measures time by the femtosecond.

Stanford's facility is 40 years old, but this adds a new wrinkle. The LCLS produces pulses of x-rays more than a billion times brighter than previous versions. Scientists expect to use it to take stop-motion pictures of atoms and molecules in motion, answering age-old questions about fundamental processes in chemistry, technology, and life itself.

"We may know there is a protein involved, but we only know what is wrong with that protein to make a person sick. And if we had a picture of that protein, if we actually knew where every atom was in that protein, we would maybe understand it, maybe make a drug to fight it," says graduate student Daniel Ratner.

Apparently, we stand to learn quite a lot in the femtoseconds ahead.


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