U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu joined politicians and scientists for a ceremony at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on Monday to dedicate a new scientific instrument, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS).
The LCLS, a $420 million project funded by the Department of Energy, is the world’s first x-ray free electron laser, and currently the world’s brightest and most powerful X-ray source.
“It is a remarkable occasion and I think this dedication has brought together an incredible group of people from Washington, from our user community around the world and of course from the entire SLAC and University community,” said University President John Hennessy on Monday.
Hennessy and Chu were joined by guests close to the project, including SLAC Director Persis Drell, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), Rep. Mike Honda (D-Campbell), LCLS Director Jo Stohr and former LCLS Director John Galayda.
For Chu, it was not a first visit to the Farm but a return: he was a Stanford physics professor from 1987 to 2008. On Monday, he recounted meeting Drell when she was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley and he was a post-doctoral student there. He joked that he only taught her two things during their time together: how to drink bourbon and how to drive a stick-shift. He was a longtime colleague to many in attendance Monday.
The co-winner of a Nobel Prize, Chu became energy secretary in 2009 and it was his department that funded the LCLS project. Stanford operates SLAC for the Department of Energy.
The new device enables scientists of fields including biology, material science and chemistry to study matter at smaller and faster scales than ever before. The powerful instrument can identify individual atoms in molecules as well as image at a fast enough rate to create stop-motion movies of chemical and biological reactions for the first time.
The LCLS achieved its first laser light in April 2009. In one of the first published experiments, scientists used the powerful x-ray beam to strip neon atoms of all electrons from the inside out for the first time, demonstrating a new technique to explore internal atomic structures.
Out of six planned experimental hutches, where researchers perform their measurements, two are currently operational. The remaining four are expected to come online within two years.
The two-mile long SLAC accelerator was built in the 1960s to accelerate electrons very close to the speed of light and then collide them in order to study high-energy particle physics. First proposed in 1992 by Claudio Pellegrini of UC-Los Angeles, LCLS uses the last third of the accelerator for a different purpose. The high-energy electrons are routed through a new undulator hall, where a series of strong magnets cause the electrons to wiggle. This oscillation is tuned to generate copious amounts of x-rays, which form the powerful laser.
Lofgren compared the revolutionary new instrument to the high-speed camera Leland Stanford commissioned in 1878 to settle the question of whether or not a galloping horse ever has all four hooves off the ground.
“The principle of examining nature and understanding the truth is the same,” she said at a news conference preceding the dedication.“It’s a fine history for Stanford.”
Both Chu and Lofgren stressed the importance of basic science in expanding scientists’ fundamental understanding of nature and its role in practical applications in medicine, alternative energy, global climate and technology. Chu offered the creation of LCLS itself as proof of that principle.
“Physicists working on high-energy physics never dreamed that their work would play such an important role in how modern pharmaceuticals work,” Chu said.
However, Chu said, the true potential of LCLS lies beyond what scientists have so far imagined.
“When you go by many many orders of magnitude…you will discover things you never would have dreamed of,” he said. “You will discover something wonderful. Why? Because you have just been the first person to look underneath a new rock that you couldn’t look at before.”