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UK to join international science facility for access to X-ray free electron technology

The UK is to become the latest member of a new international science facility which is currently under construction in Hamburg, Germany, and due for completion in 2018. The UK will invest £30 million in the European XFEL facility, which will give British researchers access to powerful X-ray free electron laser technology, allowing for more in-depth studies on the inner working of cells, atoms and chemical processes.

Once completed, the European XFEL facility will be capable of generating power equivalent to a trillion light bulbs, delivered in incredibly short X-ray flashes of up to 27,000 per second. The technology is a type of X-ray free electron laser, a new class of light source based on particle physics accelerator technology. These lasers offer two transformative capabilities compared with conventional synchrotron sources − such as the UK’s world-class Diamond Light Source at Harwell, Oxfordshire − much higher brightness beams and extremely short pulses of light.

In order to capture images, the facility will also contain a Large Pixel Detector (LPD), which was sucessfully tested at the end of December. The detector will be used from 2017 on a scientific instrument of the X-ray facility to observe these ultrafast reactions including the formation and breaking of molecular bonds. The successful test is important progress toward recording molecular movies, whereby several thousands of snapshots are taken within fractions of seconds and later assembled.

The capabilities of the new facilitiy open up entirely new scientific opportunities – for example deriving the structures of some of the very large number of important biological molecules that cannot easily be crystallised, such as membrane proteins; and observing fast moving chemical reactions as they occur, such as catalysis and photosynthesis.

The UK will become the 12th member of the European XFEL project, joining Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Overall construction costs are expected to exceed £1.2 billion.

‘This funding will generate intensely bright and short duration X-ray flashes when operational in 2018. It will open areas of research for British scientists at the atomic, molecular and nano-scale level that are currently inaccessible,’ said minister for Universities and Science Greg Clark MP.

UK scientists funded by the Medical Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, have already been working to develop new scientific instruments and processes for use at the European XFEL.

In addition, Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Central Laser Facility, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is providing new ‘Dipole’ laser technologies under contract to enable the European XFEL’s unique capabilities.

Professor John Womersley, chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, will manage the UK’s membership of the European XFEL. ‘We will now work to negotiate formal UK membership of this exciting new facility, building on our own national capabilities and facilities and allow the UK to develop entirely new scientific opportunities,’ Womersley explained.

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Further information

European XFEL

STFC

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