'Watching atoms move' is goal of powerful new X-ray sources

Feb 18, 2007

When excited, atoms move at impossibly small length and time scales -- too small and too fast to have been observed in years past. But as applied and engineering physics professor Joel D. Brock comments in the Feb. 2 issue of Science, a new generation of X-ray sources is allowing scientists to watch atoms move.

In his short paper, "Watching Atoms Move," Brock explains how scientists' understanding of matter is changing. The paper describes an international research collaboration based on a prototype X-ray machine at Stanford University.

Though not involved in the Stanford research, Brock is part of a Cornell team that is jockeying for leadership in this X-ray technology by building an Energy Recovery Linac (ERL). Still in design stages, the ERL would perform similar tasks but with more frequent X-ray pulses.

Brock's Science article concerns a group of 38 researchers led by D.M. Fritz of Stanford who, in the same issue, report on observations of oscillating atoms in an excited bismuth crystal, using a high-energy X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL). The XFEL prototype, called the Sub-Picosecond Photon Source (SPPS), was used to observe the atoms' motion and is the predecessor to a much larger machine, yet to be built at Stanford, the Linear Coherent Light Source (LCLS).

Cornell's ERL project is also in the beginning stages and would perform similar tasks, but with more frequent X-ray pulses. The university has garnered about $18 million in support from the National Science Foundation, as well as $12 million from New York state for preliminary work. The entire project, among the most ambitious undertaken at Cornell, would amount to a $300 million to $400 million investment.

The ability to observe and document the atomic activities, a domain of research known as sub-picosecond science, is now holding promise with the advent of linear accelerator based X-ray sources, which produce shorter-than-ever pulses, Brock explains.

He explains that while the XFEL at Stanford would pulse about 100 times per second, Cornell's ERL could pulse as fast as 1 billion times per second.

The machines are used for different kinds of experiments, but both belong to the new generation of X-rays sources for observing atomic activity.

"These new machines are magnificent," Brock said. "They're mind-boggling in what they'll be able to do."

Brock explained that the potential applications in other fields, such as chemistry or biology, are enormous. For example, traditional X-ray diffraction technology has long allowed scientists to observe viruses, but through snapshots only -- still pictures, limited by the speed of the X-rays.

Using the greatly improved X-ray sources, scientists could someday watch a virus move, see how it grabs on to a cell, and discover why it is harmful. That observation could lead to processes by which to disable the virus.

"We've seen the snapshot," Brock said. "Now let's see the movie."

Source: Cornell University

Explore further: Using antineutrinos to monitor nuclear reactors

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

When things get glassy, molecules go fractal

1 hour ago

Colorful church windows, beads on a necklace and many of our favorite plastics share something in common—they all belong to a state of matter known as glasses. School children learn the difference between ...

FCC to propose pay-for-priority Internet standards

1 hour ago

The Federal Communications Commission is set to propose new open Internet rules that would allow content companies to pay for faster delivery over the so-called "last mile" connection to people's homes.

SK Hynix posts Q1 surge in net profit

1 hour ago

South Korea's SK Hynix Inc said Thursday its first-quarter net profit surged nearly 350 percent from the previous year on a spike in sales of PC memory chips.

Brazil enacts Internet 'Bill of Rights'

1 hour ago

Brazil's president signed into law on Wednesday a "Bill of Rights" for the digital age that aims to protect online privacy and promote the Internet as a public utility by barring telecommunications companies ...

Recommended for you

Using antineutrinos to monitor nuclear reactors

6 hours ago

When monitoring nuclear reactors, the International Atomic Energy Agency has to rely on input given by the operators. In the future, antineutrino detectors may provide an additional option for monitoring. ...

Imaging turns a corner

10 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Scientists have developed a new microscope which enables a dramatically improved view of biological cells.

Mapping the road to quantum gravity

Apr 23, 2014

The road uniting quantum field theory and general relativity – the two great theories of modern physics – has been impassable for 80 years. Could a tool from condensed matter physics finally help map ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Phase transiting to a new quantum universe

(Phys.org) —Recent insight and discovery of a new class of quantum transition opens the way for a whole new subfield of materials physics and quantum technologies.

A 'quantum leap' in encryption technology

Toshiba Research Europe, BT, ADVA Optical Networking and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK's National Measurement Institute, today announced the first successful trial of Quantum Key Distribution ...

When things get glassy, molecules go fractal

Colorful church windows, beads on a necklace and many of our favorite plastics share something in common—they all belong to a state of matter known as glasses. School children learn the difference between ...