Why SwissFEL?

Exploring New Realms of Science and Technology

There are exiting things that can be done with a powerful x-ray laser like SwissFEL. With its peak x-ray power at 10 Gigawatt, you can produce and study the interior of hot and dense plasmas which properties are similar to those at the heart of planets or stars. But there are also the down-to-earth applications that can have an impact on our daily life. One of those involves miniaturization in electronics. Further shrinking the components inside laptops and mobile phones will involve entering the nanoworld. Nanometer size magnets will be needed to implement ever smaller magnetic storage devices while increasing their operational speeds to a perceivable extent will carry us into the realm of the ultrafast. Peering into phenomena as fast as some femtoseconds occurring at the nanometer scale will be a privilege reserved to an ultrafast camera-nanoscope like SwissFEL. With pulses as short as 20 femtoseconds and wavelengths of 0.1 nanometers, the SwissFEL eye will be both swift and sharp enough to see the femtosecond switching of nanomagnets.

In chemistry, for instance, which deals with the reactivity of molecules due to their geometrical and electronic structure at the nanoscale, ultrafast processes still remain virtually unexplored. How does the poisonous carbon monoxide is converted into less harmful carbon dioxide on a nanometer size platinum plate? How does the magnetic state of an iron atom in a protein can affect its ability to bind oxygen and deliver it to distant tissue? For decades, scientist have been unable to find answers to such questions. SwissFEL can now be of help in their inquiries. One key feature of SwissFEL will be its extraordinary brightness. Brightness or brilliance is defined by scientists as the number of photons per second passing through a given cross section area and within a given narrow solid angle and spectral bandwidth. A high brightness means thus high intensity combined with tight focusing and spectral purity. The brightness of X-FELs will surpass that of the most advanced synchrotron light sources by 12 orders of magnitude (one thousand billions times more), which is a huge leap when one considers that synchrotrons themselves are also 12 orders of magnitude more brilliant than laboratory scale x-ray sources.

This significant increase in brightness will make it possible to image the structure of proteins forming the membrane of cells. These proteins are a natural target for drugs and a better understanding of their structure will be decisive for fighting as yet incurable diseases. It is very hard to grow large 3-dimensional crystals of membrane proteins as their natural habitat, the cell membrane is intrinsically 2-dimensional. Without large crystals it is on the other hand almost impossible to get pictures of anything with synchrotron light. With the superior brilliance of SwissFEL, however, the requirement of growing large crystals will be removed and cell membrane proteins will reveal its long held secrets.

The Importance of a National FEL Facility

Switzerland is a small country but the contribution of our scientists to the global wealth of knowledge is appreciably high. This fact attracts many brilliant minds to Swiss universities and research centers as well as dynamic and innovative companies from all over the world. Preserving that reputation of excellence implies keeping pace with the state of the art in science and technology. Especially in fields of such a high economic impact like materials science, chemistry and biology it will be crucial to have access to the new scientific horizons made available by a free-electron laser.

How short a time are 20 femtoseconds?

A SwissFEL pulse will be as short as 20 femtoseconds. This is a staggeringly short time! Within 20 femtoseconds even light travels only a distance of six microns. This is as small as one tenth the thickness of a human hair and thus far beyond what the human eye can distinguish.

Why we need hard X-Rays to see atoms?

One of the fundamental laws of Optics states that when imaging an object with electromagnetic radiation (light), the smallest structures one can resolve are the size of the wavelength of the light used. Hence, in order to image atoms, radiation with a wavelength as short as one tenth of a nanometer is needed. This is exactly the wavelength of the so called hard X-Rays. A look at the electromagnetic spectrum reveals what kind of light can be used to see different structures occurring in nature.