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  • Ultrasmall, ultrafast, ultraexciting

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2009
Tom Laurin

As we send this issue to press, the very first experiments are lighting up at the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), located at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., and operated by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy.

For more than four decades, SLAC’s two-mile-long linear accelerator (linac) has produced high-energy electrons for use in physics experiments. And now it has begun a new phase of its career, driving a new kind of laser and creating x-ray pulses that illuminate objects and processes at an unprecedented scale and speed.

Thirty-three Linac Coherent Light Source undulator magnets create intense x-ray laser light from a pulse of electrons traveling 99.9999999 percent the speed of light. Courtesy of Brad Plummer, SLAC.

The LCLS – the world’s most powerful x-ray laser – enables groundbreaking research in all kinds of fields. Its x-ray pulses are reported to be more than a billion times brighter than the most powerful existing synchrotron sources.

Six instruments are planned for the LCLS. The first, already operational, is the Atomic, Molecular and Optical science instrument. The rest are expected to be brought online by 2013 for use by researchers in fields including materials, energy and environmental sciences; medicine; chemistry; physics; and biology.

“No one has ever had access to this kind of light before,” said Jo Stöhr, LCLS director. “The realization of the LCLS isn’t only a huge achievement for SLAC but an achievement for the global science community. It will allow us to study the atomic world in ways never before possible.”

Those last three words, “never before possible,” are exciting. The photonics industry has a history of staying on the cutting edge, of pushing boundaries and exceeding limits, and whenever a new technology or process is developed that can take us even further – in this case, smaller and faster than ever – it’s an inspiration.

The researchers and engineers who developed the LCLS project and those like it are the driving force behind innovation not only in photonics but in basic science, as are those who use these light sources to advance human knowledge and understanding.

We commend them.

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