The sub-atomic world is about to get blown wide open. This new, uber-high speed X-ray camera may allow researchers to actually observe the basic structures and behaviors of matter.
The £3 million prototype camera, currently under development by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council, will be used in conjunction with the billion-euro European XFEL (X-ray Free-Electron Laser) when the facility goes online in 2015 just outside of Hamburg, Germany. The two-mile long laser uses superconducting technology to speed electrons down a 1.7-kilometer particle accelerator at nearly the speed of light. Special cavities within the accellerator, called resonators, use oscillating microwaves to transfer energy to the electrons. As the XFEL site explains,
The resonators are made of the metal niobium and are superconducting: When they are cooled to a temperature of -271 degrees Celsius, they lose their electrical resistance. Electrical current then flows through the resonators with no losses whatsoever, and nearly the entire electrical power is transferred to the particles. Moreover, the superconducting resonators deliver a very fine and even electron beam. A particle beam of such extremely high quality is the absolute prerequisite to operate an X-ray laser.
Once the electrons are sufficiently charged, they travel through undulators, arrangements of magnets that force the electrons into progressively tighter wave forms. As the electrons move, they emit X-rays and, the faster their wave frequency, the more X-rays they produce. This is caused by radiation interacting with the electrons as they undulate, eventually causing the them to form into thin disks that spontaneously and simultaneously emit their X-rays, which produces short and intense flashes with the properties of a laser. These flashes are not only a billion times brighter than those produced by other X-ray sources, each one is ludriciously fast— lasting less than one hundred million billionth of a second. The top image depicts an artists rendering of one electron disk emitting its X-ray charge.
Since normal X-ray cameras require their subjects be bombarded with a constant flow of X-ray energy in order to work, they would be useless with the the XFEL, hence the development of the STFC camera. It is specifically designed to operate in conjunction with the short, bright X-ray flashes the XFEL produces and can capture 4.5 million frames a second. So what would researchers use this for (besides the most epic subatomic "bullet time" videos the world has ever witnessed)? How about mapping the exterior of viruses, determining the molecular composition of cells, making 3-D images of individual molecules, allowing new researching methods for drug discovery, or my favorite, filming chemical reactions in real time, on the molecular level.
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