News & Analysis Physics World  October 2017

European X-ray centre officially opens

Up and running First experiments began last month on the European X-ray Free Electron Laser in Germany. (European XFEL)

The €1.22bn European X-ray Free Electron Laser (E-XFEL) in Hamburg, Germany, has been inaugurated at a ceremony held last month at the lab. The opening was attended by several officials including Germany’s research minister Johanna Wanka and the mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz.

The 3.4 km-long E-XFEL uses a superconducting linear accelerator to accelerate electrons before passing them through an “undulator” where they produce coherent X-ray beams 27,000 times per second and with a luminance a billion times higher than that of the best conventional X-ray sources. Each pulse will last less than 100 fs (10–13 s), allowing researchers to create “movies” of chemical reactions and decipher the molecular composition of viruses and cells.

Experiments began last month on two instruments. The Femtosecond X-Ray Experiments will enable the study of fast reactions and can record molecular movies, while the Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules and Serial Femtosecond Crystallography will investigate the structure and transformation of biomolecules and other biological particles such as viruses and cell components. This experimental run will end in November, with the next user programme set for early 2018.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Wanka noted that the establishment of the European XFEL has created a unique cutting-edge research facility, which promises groundbreaking insights into the nanocosmos. Meanwhile, European XFEL managing director Robert Feidenhans’l said that the facility would “open the door to new areas of science”.

The E-XFEL has 11 international partners: Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The UK is currently in the process of joining.

Michael Banks