SCIENCE
01/25/2012 06:57 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

Laser Scientists Create World's Most Powerful And Precise X-Ray Lasers

Laser researchers at Stanford University's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are beaming over a pair of research papers they've just published.

One paper details what's being called the world's most powerful laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). Its beam is "a billion times brighter than those of any X-ray source before it," according to a SLAC statement.

The other paper presents the world's most precise laser, which uses individual atoms to fire off a beam of high-energy electrons. It's been dubbed an atomic laser.

The LCLS managed to heat a piece of aluminum foil to 2 million degrees. As one writer noted, that's hotter than the sun. The researchers called the laser "a significant step forward in understanding the most extreme matter found in the hearts of stars and giant planets, and could help experiments aimed at recreating the nuclear fusion process that powers the sun."

Yes, the LCLS sounds pretty impressive. But don't forget about the atomic laser. It stimulates neon atoms in such a way that some of their electrons shoot off and stimulate other atoms, and the ensuing chain reaction amplifies the initial laser pulse by a factor of 200 million.

"We envision researchers using this new type of laser for all sorts of interesting things, such as teasing out the details of chemical reactions or watching biological molecules at work," said Nina Rohringer, the Stanford physicist who lead the research. "The shorter the pulses, the faster the changes we can capture. And the purer the light, the sharper the details we can see."

Both devices are X-ray lasers (Xasers), which work by like conventional visible light lasers but use shorter wavelengths and produce much higher power.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the LCLS produces temperatures never before seen in a lab. In fact, it produces a beam brighter than any X-ray before it.

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