The Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL) is a centre of excellence for science at new-generation light sources that is unique in Europe. CFEL was established by DESY, the University of Hamburg and the Max Planck Society to fully exploit the interdisciplinary possibilities opened up by the radiation sources at DESY – PETRA III, FLASH and, in future, the European XFEL. Thanks to these new light sources, scientists can observe and analyse dynamical processes and structural changes of atoms, molecules, solids, plasmas or biological systems in real time.

Is it possible to observe how an electron jumps from one reactant to another with incredible speed during a chemical reaction? Can biomolecules be illuminated with intense X-ray flashes in such a way that scientists can discern the atoms they are made of? And is it possible to turn superconductors – materials that transport electric current without losses – on and off with pulses of light? It’s been only a few years since scientists have had the capacity to address these questions. They are doing so with lasers and accelerators that generate ultrashort flashes of light, and with special-purpose microscopes that can analyse nanoparticles with high precision.

A unique centre of excellence

This cutting-edge field of research is the focus of CFEL on the DESY campus in Hamburg. The three CFEL partners pursue a strategy that is unique in Europe: experts of various scientific disciplines work with different research tools to observe ultrafast processes in the nanoworld from different points of view. To this end, they use X-ray lasers, optical lasers, or the most modern electron and scanning tunnelling microscopes. At the same time, the scientists are actively advancing these research tools and thus making fundamental contributions to further investigating the dynamic processes in all states of matter.

Using extremely intense X-ray laser flashes, CFEL scientists irradiate cells, viruses, proteins and nanoparticles to decode their structure and develop new basic knowledge for the design of new medications. They investigate ultrafast processes in solids that could one day be useful for information technology and power engineering. With “molecular movies”, they visualize the progress of chemical reactions and the interaction of individual reactants. In doing so, CFEL sets new standards in particular for research in the field of bio- and nanomaterials.