The European XFEL has potential to provide significant contributions to the challenges of our century
The most powerful laser in the world will soon be put into operation and thus available to its users, including the Slovak scientific community. We talked about its benefits and possibilities of use with the XFEL Scientific Director – Thomas Tschentscher.
S. HABRMANOVÁ: At what stage of construction is currently the European XFEL?
T. TSCHENTSCHER: Construction of the European XFEL, which started in 2009, is coming close to completion. Commissioning is in full swing, and the X-ray laser generated its first X-ray light in early May. We will now direct the X-ray flashes with special mirrors through the last tunnel section into the experiment hall, and then will start with the commissioning of the experiment stations. User operation is scheduled to start in autumn. There are still challenges ahead of us, but I would like to take the opportunity to thank our international partners for their continuous advice and support of the past years that made it possible to build this new world class facility.
S. H.: What do you think was the most difficult during the XFEL construction?
T. TSCHENTSCHER: The European XFEL is a facility that was never built before, and many partners contributed to the realization. Its construction posed a great number of different scientific and technological challenges, which had been addressed with the help of academia and industry to their mutual advantage. Another challenge for everybody involved was to realize this large and ambitious project within the framework of the budget and to meet the expectations of the future users, who are eager start with their experiments as soon as possible.
S. H.: What are the greatest benefits of the European XFEL to science/society?
T. TSCHENTSCHER: Most of what future users will do at the European XFEL is basic research. It is typical for basic research that it is difficult to predict what the greatest benefits will be and when the society will profit from them – sometimes the most important breakthroughs happen in fields which were not even the primary focus of research. In any case, exciting discoveries for the benefit of science and society can be expected in many fields. One for instance is the investigation of the causes and mechanisms of disease development down to the molecular level. Deciphering the atomic details of the structure of biomolecules and other biological samples is expected to lead to new pharmaceutical products and therapies. XFELs have already shown that it is possible to obtain sufficient structural information from crystals that are smaller than those which are usually used at synchrotrons, which will make it much easier for scientists to decipher molecular structures. The extremely brilliant light pulses of the X-ray lasers are even expected to pave the way for determining the structure of single, non-crystalline molecules, which would be a huge breakthrough in structural biology. Other important applications come with the ultrashort flashes of the European XFEL, which will ensure sharp, non-blurred pictures of very fast processes. These flashes can for instance provide new insight into protein folding, which is associated with the development of a number of serious diseases such as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, Alzheimer’s disease or Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease. The XFEL flashes will also be used to look into the details of biological or chemical processes. Better understanding of the splitting of water during natural photosynthesis for example could be at the basis of an optimized photosynthetic process on an industrial scale, generating hydrogen and liquid fuels from ingredients as cheap and abundant as sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, and some light metals. The European XFEL will allow researchers to address many other challenges of our time, such as the optimization of chemical catalytic processes or the further advancement of information technology through experiments that lead to a better understanding of ultrafast magnetization erasure and re-writing by optical laser pulses.
S. H.: For which scientific areas will this laser be the most exciting?
T. TSCHENTSCHER: The European XFEL will offer many exciting new opportunities in various scientific areas. A focus of attention will certainly be structural biology and fast processes due to their potential to provide significant contributions to the challenges of our century. Another focus will be in photo-chemistry with its large potential to study catalytic and light-harvesting processes. Other very interesting applications will be research for the development of new functional materials or studies of matter that is similar to that occurring inside astrophysical objects such as exoplanets or other extreme conditions. The latter will for instance enable researchers to refine planetary models or shed light on superconductivity and explore laser-matter interaction with highest possible resolutions. A particularly interesting field is that of non-linear x-ray physics. Here European XFEL, due to its high pulse energies and large average brightness, might enable completely new and yet unfeasible experiments. It is a very new field, which has shown its great value for applications in the domain of optical radiation. We will have the great opportunity to be amongst the first to discover the new opportunities this field provides to scientific applications.
S. H.: After the school SFEL2017. Which area of the Slovak scientific community will the XFEL address the most?
T. TSCHENTSCHER: At the school the Slovak community was mostly presented in the areas of structural biology and materials sciences. While the structural biology community already has a focus on European XFEL and the application of x-ray FELs, it seemed that the materials science community is currently more focused on synchrotron radiation application. Both directions will be in the focus of scientific application of European XFEL and our scientists will do their best to support the Slovak researchers in preparing proposals and experiments at European XFEL.
Interviewed by: Slávka Habrmanová, NCP S&T
In cooperation with: Mgr. Mária Hrehová, PhD., Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice
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