X-ray lasers used to unravel how atoms react when hit with light

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The Tyndall National Institute in Ireland are using x-ray lasers to unravel how atoms vibrate and change when hit with intense bursts of light. The work, which has been published in Nature Physics, has the potential to transform the speed of data transfer though optical fibres.

The collaborative research is using x-ray lasers to investigate how natural vibrations of molecules and solids are excited by intense bursts of light. The laser generates pulses so short that they can capture a snapshot of the moving atoms in less than a billionth of a billionth of a second, which enables researchers to better understand how individual atoms are affected when light is absorbed.

This is the first time that researchers have been able to look at any material in such detail. As the research progresses, it has the potential to transform the speed and capacity of data transfer through optical fibres on the internet and even unlock how atom-level photosynthesis works, with the possibility for it to be replicated to increase energy storage capacity.

Prof. Stephen Fahy, who led the research at the Institute, said: ‘Understanding and controlling how light alters the forces between atoms is central to our understanding of photo-chemistry and underpins many areas of energy science, such as photocatalysis. Tyndall and its collaborators are one of only a few groups worldwide with the ability to measure and calculate such atomic motion and we are delighted to have our work recognised by Nature.’

A 5-year programme of research on this topic at the Tyndall National Institute is currently funded by Science Foundation Ireland.