A light source of unprecedented brilliance, the technology of which is poised to be responsible for significant advancements in fields such as healthcare, materials science and sustainable energy and to open up vast new areas for scientific exploration that have previously been inaccessible, has been achieved at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) Daresbury Laboratory. Scientists working on ALICE (Accelerators and Lasers In Combined Experiments), an R&D prototype for the next generation of accelerator-based light sources, have successfully demonstrated Europe's first Free Electron Laser to be operated on an energy recovery particle accelerator, on 23 October 2010.
A Free Electron Laser (FEL) is unparalleled in its capability as a light source, the intensity of light emitted is so strong, and of such exceptional quality, that it can be used to surgically remove a brain tumour without damaging the surrounding tissue and it can even weld metal. Acting like a conventional laser incorporated into a particle accelerator, the light bounces backwards and forwards between mirrors and can be controlled and manipulated much more precisely than conventional lasers to produce intense, powerful light with extreme precision. FELs can be used to help us better understand the fundamental processes of life itself as they allow scientists to study chemical reactions in real time, examine how catalysts behave, and increase their understanding of biological processes, such as the behaviour of a virus or the location of a drug on the surface of a molecule.
Particle accelerators themselves normally consume huge amounts of energy and can therefore be very expensive to run. However, as an energy recovery particle accelerator, ALICE is able to recover and re-use a proportion of its energy, making it more efficient and using significantly less energy than a conventional accelerator. Minimum energy is used to create the best possible beams of light. ALICE's demonstration of the Free Electron Laser in the infra-red region of the spectrum was achieved at 27.5 million electron volts and is Europe's first energy recovery accelerator to do this. The same technology could be used to create light from infra-red through to X-rays.
Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of STFC added: "This is a fantastic achievement and all of those involved in this project have worked tremendously hard to demonstrate this capability, which is the first of its kind in Europe. Reaching this milestone has confirmed the UK's ability to build, develop and demonstrate its scientific skills and techniques in this field and given us some exciting prospects for the future of next generation light sources. This is technology that will change people's lives for the better and make our environment a cleaner place."
Professor Jim Clarke, Head of Magnetics and Radiation Sources Group at STFC Daresbury Laboratory said: "This technology will open up completely new research opportunities for scientists in both universities and industry that were previously inaccessible. The impact of this technology is set to be huge, from studying a drug on a cell membrane to gain a deeper understanding into how drugs behave in the body, to a better understanding of the mechanisms behind solar cells with a view to improving techniques for cleaner energy, this is a giant step in the development of a major FEL facility for the UK scientific community."
Academics at the University of Liverpool are already researching the applications of this 4th generation light source in nanobiology, whilst scientists at Imperial College London want to use the light to manipulate gas molecules into precise orientations at an instant in time. Liverpool's Professor Peter Weightman, who is leading biological research on ALICE said: "The completion of the UK's first free electron laser opens the way to sub-cellular imaging of processes taking place in living cells with considerable potential for advances in both fundamental science and the treatment of disease."
Science and technology Facilities Council (Daresbury)
Tel: 01925 603232
ALICE is an acronym standing for Accelerators and Lasers In Combined Experiments. Financed by STFC with seed funding from the North West Development Agency, the project is designed to investigate next generation particle accelerator beam technology and also to produce light from both accelerated electrons and advanced lasers that can be used simultaneously in cutting edge demonstration experiments. ALICE's technology is capable of making real-time movies of chemical reactions at the atomic level. This capability will have a major impact in research carried out in the fields of drug development, materials science for energy applications and environmentally friendly technologies. ALICE's design is based upon an unusual mode of operation for accelerators, known as energy recovery, where the energy used to create its high energy beam is captured and re-used after each circuit of the accelerator for further acceleration of fresh particles. This mode minimises the power needed to accelerate the beams, which at maximum level would otherwise require a small power station to operate. ALICE is the first accelerator in Europe to operate in this way. ALICE is designed to accelerate beams to 35 million electron volts, electrons will be sent round the accelerator at 99.99% of the speed of light and 99.9% of the power at the final accelerator stage will be recovered, making the power sources for the acceleration drastically smaller and cheaper and therefore economically viable. The technologies and skills under development on ALICE are needed for the next generation of advanced light sources.About Free Electron Lasers
Free Electron Lasers (FELs) are an increasingly important kind of light source. Standard lasers can be very bright sources of visible light but they soon fade away in the deep ultra-violet and x-ray regions of the spectrum. FELs represent a radical alternative to conventional lasers, being the most flexible, high power and efficient generators of tunable coherent radiation from the infra-red to the X-ray. FELs can have the optical properties that are characteristic of conventional lasers such as high spatial coherence and a near diffraction limited radiation beam, but FELs combine a high energy electron beam and a magnet called an undulator in such a way that all of the electrons emit light of the same wavelength at the same time, producing huge bursts of light. The latest FELs produce pulses of X-ray light that are powerful and fast enough for scientists to take stop-motion pictures of atoms and molecules in motion. In April 2009, scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in California, USA for the first time announced lasing of a Free-Electron Laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), in the hard X-ray region at a wavelength of 1.5Å (1.5Å10-10m). This was a landmark event in the history of light-source science that will open up vast new areas for scientific exploration. Another powerful new research X-ray FEL facility, the European XFEL, is currently being developed at the DESY (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron) laboratory in Hamburg for use by researchers from 2014.The Science and Technology Facilities Council
The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships. The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:
- The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
- The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
- The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh
The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Chile, and in the UK LOFAR and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.