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  • Researchers Edge Closer to Building Tabletop X-Ray Laser
Feb 2007
BOULDER, Colo., Feb. 26, 2007 -- A team of researchers has developed a new technique to generate laser-like x-ray beams, removing a major obstacle in the decades-long quest to build a tabletop x-ray laser that could be used for biological and medical imaging.

KapteynMurnane.jpgFor nearly half a century, scientists have been trying to figure out how to build a cost-effective and reasonably sized x-ray laser to provide superhigh imaging resolution, according to University of Colorado at Boulder physics professors Henry Kapteyn and Margaret Murnane, who led the team at JILA, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Most of today's x-ray lasers require so much power that they rely on fusion laser facilities the size of football stadiums, making their use impractical.

"We've come up with a good end run around the requirement for a monstrous power source," Kapteyn said.

If they can extend the new technique all the way into the hard x-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum, which they think is just a matter of time because there are no physical principles blocking the way, the ramifications would be felt in numerous fields.

"If we can do this, it might make it possible to improve x-ray imaging resolution by a thousand times, with impacts in medicine, biology and nanotechnology," Murnane said. "For example, the x-rays we get in the hospital are limited by spatial resolution. They can't detect really small cancers because the x-ray source in your doctor's office is like a light bulb, not like a laser. If you had a bright, laser-like x-ray beam, you could image with far higher resolution."

To generate laser-like x-ray beams, the team used a powerful laser to pluck an electron from an atom of argon, a highly stable chemical element, and then slam it back into the same atom. The boomerang action generates a weak, but directed beam of x-rays.euvtabletop.jpg
The entire system for creating extreme ultraviolet (EUV) beams in the JILA lab fits within a space of less than two square meters. In this iteration, the setup is configured for creating holograms. (Photo: Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn, JILA at the University of Colorado)
The obstacle they needed to hurdle was combining different x-ray waves emitted from a large number of atoms to generate an x-ray beam bright enough to be useful, Kapteyn said. In other words, they needed to generate big enough waves flowing together to make a strong x-ray.

The biggest problem was the waves of x-rays do not all come out "marching in step" because visible laser light and x-ray beams travel at different speeds in the argon gas, Murnane said. This meant that while some x-ray waves combined with other waves from similar regions to become stronger, waves from different regions would cancel each other out, making the x-ray output weaker.

To correct this, the researchers sent some weak pulses of visible laser light into the gas in the opposite direction of the laser beam generating the x-rays. The weak laser beam manipulates the electrons plucked from the argon atoms, whose emissions are out of sync with the main beam, and then slams them back into the atoms to generate x-rays at just the right time, intensifying the strength of the beam by over a hundred times.

"Think of a kid on a swing," Kapteyn said. "If you keep pushing at the right time the swing goes higher and higher, but if you don't push it at the right time, you'll eventually stop it. What we found is essentially another beam of light to control exactly when the swing is getting pushed. By putting the light in the right place, we don't allow the swing to be pushed at the wrong time."

The team plans to continue the research through the Engineering Research Center for Extreme Ultraviolet Science and Technology, a National Science Foundation-supported center comprised of researchers from CU-Boulder, Colorado State University and the University of California at Berkeley. The current research was supported with NSF grants.

A paper on the subject by Murnane and Kapteyn, CU-Boulder graduate students Xiaoshi Zhang, Amy Lytle, Tenio Popmintchev, Xibin Zhou and senior research associate Oren Cohen of JILA, was published Feb. 25 in the online version of the journal Nature Physics.

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A charged elementary particle of an atom; the term is most commonly used in reference to the negatively charged particle called a negatron. Its mass at rest is me = 9.109558 x 10-31 kg, its charge is 1.6021917 x 10-19 C, and its spin quantum number is 1/2. Its positive counterpart is called a positron, and possesses the same characteristics, except for the reversal of the charge.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
1. In optics, the ability of a lens system to reproduce the points, lines and surfaces in an object as separate entities in the image. 2. The minimum adjustment increment effectively achievable by a positioning mechanism. 3. In image processing, the accuracy with which brightness, spatial parameters and frame rate are divided into discrete levels.
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