The Hamburg area will soon boast a research facility of superlatives: the European XFEL will generate ultrashort X-ray flashes – 27 000 times per second and with a brilliance that is a billion times higher than that of the best conventional X-ray radiation sources. The facility, which is the only one of its kind in the world, will open up completely new research opportunities for scientists and industrial users. As the main shareholder, DESY is playing a major part in the construction and operation of the facility.

Films of chemical reactions that take place in fractions of a second; images of proteins in which every atom can be seen; pictures of nanomaterials that show the tiniest details; insights into the states of matter inside giant planets or stars – up until now, scientists could only dream of conducting such experiments. Beginning in 2017, however, the European XFEL X-ray laser will make this dream come true. The large-scale facility is currently under construction. When completed, it will be the world’s brightest X-ray source.

A major international project

The European XFEL, which is being installed in underground tunnels, will be more than three kilometres long and stretch from the DESY site in Hamburg to the town of Schenefeld in the German federal state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the resarch campus with the large experimental hall will be located. The billion-euro project is an international joint undertaking for which a separate company was established, the European XFEL GmbH. The project is being conducted by Germany and 10 other countries, including Russia, France and Italy.

DESY, the main shareholder, is working closely with European XFEL GmbH on the construction and operation of the facility. Among other things, DESY and its international partners are building the heart of the X-ray laser facility – the 1.7-kilometre superconducting accelerator including the electron source. DESY will also operate the accelerator after the facility is commissioned.

The accelerator is based on the superconducting TESLA technology, which has been developed by DESY and its international partners within the TESLA Technology Collaboration. Since 2005, DESY has been operating the free-electron laser FLASH, a 260-metre-long prototype of the European XFEL. Because FLASH relies on the same technology as the European XFEL, the facility is ideally suited for testing the X-ray laser technology and developing the requisite components to the series-production stage.

Light source of the future

The accelerator of the European XFEL brings electrons to nearly the speed of light and then sends them through long undulators. These special magnets force the electrons along slalom paths, which causes the particles to emit extremely short and powerful X-ray flashes. Unlike the X-ray pulses produced in a storage ring, these flashes have laser properties – a precondition for certain experiments, such as recording holograms.

There are X-ray lasers of a similar size in Japan and the USA. However, unlike the European XFEL, these do not use superconducting accelerators and therefore produce relatively few X-ray flashes per second. The European XFEL, on the other hand, generates 27 000 flashes per second, which offers a decisive advantage in various experiments.

Unique insights into the microcosm

Scientists from a range of disciplines will benefit from the new super-laser: Biologists will obtain detailed images of cell components, individual protein molecules and viruses. The results will help to combat diseases and develop new medications. Chemists will film reactions and observe in slow-motion how individual atoms react with one another. The knowledge thus gained can help to optimize industrial catalysts, for example.

Physicists and materials scientists will study the exact structure of nanomaterials. Such materials play an important role when it comes to developing more effective solar cells, fuel cells and data storage systems. Astrophysicists will analyse extremely hot and compressed material samples. This will provide insights into the interior of stars and planets and help reveal the extent to which nuclear fusion processes are suitable as a new source of energy.

Facts and figures
  • European project with strong DESY participation
  • Construction and operation: European XFEL GmbH (non-profit)
  • Free-electron laser with superconducting linear accelerator in TESLA technology
  • Total length: approx. 3.4 kilometres
  • Generates extremely brilliant laser radiation in the X-ray range using the SASE principle (wavelengths tunable between 0.1 and 6 nanometres)
  • Under construction; scheduled start of commissioning: 2016
  • One underground experimental hall with room for ten measuring stations
  • Scope to build a second, equally large experimental complex