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SLAC building world’s most powerful X-ray laser

The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) is beginning construction on what will be the world’s most powerful X-ray laser, which will be known as Linac Coherent Light Source II (LCLS-II). The laser is scheduled for completion in 2020, and the $1 billion in construction costs are being paid for by the Department of Energy (DOE).

The new laser’s predecessor, LCLS-I, was built six years ago. At the time it was groundbreaking technology as an X-ray microscope, capturing shots of changing chemical bonds and and the 3-D structure of disease-proteins. LCLS-II will serve similar purposes at a higher quality, but also increase the SLAC’s capacity for research, an important development in the shared facility operated by Stanford on DOE’s behalf.

While LCLS-I was able to capture idealized, single points, LCLS-II will aim to capture real systems within real environments.

According to Mike Dunne, the director of the LCLS program, the new laser will allow for more effective use of the facility both in quality and quantity of experimentation. Previous experiments with LCLS-I led to six different Nobel prizes in physics.

“Because LCLS is an open science facility where anyone in the world can apply to perform an experiment, it is a highly competitive process to get time in the lab,” Dunn said. “LCLS-II doubles the capacity of scientists using the device… from 32 states in the US and over 20 different countries.”

The technology to be used in the new laser is known as “superconducting” — when the tunnel of the laser is chilled to minus 456 degrees Fahrenheit, electrons flow freely, with no electricity loss. The laser itself will take up approximately one third of the two-mile length of the linear accelerator, and will work in tandem with its predecessor, LCLS-I.  However, the new laser is anticipated to be 10,000 times brighter and 8,000 times faster than the original.

The construction period will necessitate the shut-down of other SLAC operations for about a year starting in mid-2018.

“This is a somewhat major disruption and is painful, but the benefits of the new machine will outweigh that,” Dunne said.

Additional partners for the construction LCLS-II project include Cornell University and four other national research cites: Argonne, Berkeley Lab, Fermilab and Jefferson Lab. Nevertheless, Dunne sees the further construction as strengthening Stanford’s leadership.

“LCLS was the first machine of its kind… and this makes sure that we continue to be at the international forefront,” Dunne said. “[SLAC] wants to stay in that leadership position.”


 Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Nobel prizes had been awarded based on previous LCLS experiments. This has been removed, as the four Nobel prizes were as a result of SLAC, but not the LCLS program. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Ada Statler-Throckmorton at adastat ‘at’ stanford.edu.