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Technician Karsten Harries combines two modules of the tubular electron accelerator in the European XFEL. (Photo: R. Frommann)

Techniker Karsten Harries verbindet zwei Module des röhrenförmigen Elektronenbeschleunigers im European XFEL. (Foto: R. Frommann)

Technician Karsten Harries combines two modules of the tubular electron accelerator in the European XFEL. (Photo: R. Frommann)

How did Jupiter come about? And what happens inside the giant planet, where incredibly high temperatures and enormous pressure prevail? How does a virus gain access to the host? And how can that be prevented? A research project of superlatives should help to find answers to these and other questions. At the beginning of 2017, the European XFEL will launch an X-ray laser of enormous dimensions at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchotron (DESY).

The X-ray gun of the European XFEL reaches from DESY in Hamburg 3.4 kilometers to Schenefeld in Schleswig-Holstein. More than 1000 researchers registered for the "Users Meeting" in the Hanseatic city in 2016 to find out about the progress of the facility. But only a fraction of them will be able to do research there. Currently, their work is still diligently prepared and tested the system. The Hamburg-based photographer Ronald Frommann visited the X-ray laser for Bild der Wissenschaft and captured the construction progress of the huge flashlight machine with his camera.

He has seen an X-ray laser cannon that can send 27, 000 flashes of X-ray light per second, thus outshining existing plants in the USA, Switzerland, Japan and South Korea. In the European XFEL, particles are accelerated over a distance of 1.7 kilometers, the flashes of which then shine 100 times as brightly as X-ray light from synchotrons, ie simple ring accelerators. Also unique in the world: The X-ray light can be set to different wavelengths from 0.05 to 4.7 nanometers. A promising facility for scientists of various disciplines.

Lightning for the medicine

Biologists, physicians and pharmacologists have high hopes for the X-ray laser. He should allow them to create slow motion movies, for example, reactions that occur in fractions of a second. For this purpose, live samples are shot into the focus of X-ray light. The sensitive material is thereby destroyed because of the ultrashort exposure time of almost four millionths of a second, but only after the recording. Like a flip book, several such snapshots can be put together to form a whole movie.

This might not only expose the strategies against viruses that infiltrate into host cells, but also help to monitor protein folding. Serious diseases such as Alzheimer's are causally related to incorrect protein folding. However, one does not know exactly what is going wrong. In the slow-motion movie, this could become visible - and help to develop drugs that prevent false folding. display

Observing instead of "trial and error"

Also in the search for new catalysts that are cheaper and more effective than those used today, this film function is interesting. Catalysts accelerate chemical reactions. They clean the exhaust gases of cars and power plants, for example, or increase the efficiency of hydrogen electrolysis. Catalysts are used in over 80 percent of all industrial chemical processes. At the moment, the good ones, such as platinum, are also very expensive. Chemists are therefore constantly looking for new and similarly effective catalysts.

But there is another catalyst research problem: No one can see how a catalyst works. According to the principle "trial and error", new explanations sometimes arise. For example, scientists from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum have developed a catalyst from the naturally occurring mineral pentlandite, which can accelerate hydrogen electrolysis. But this is still a long way from targeted research. The only certainty is: The surface of catalysts interacts with the reaction partner this interaction is to make XFEL visible.

Save with light

XFEL is also interesting for developers of storage systems. They want to increase the storage volume by describing storage media in the future with circularly polarized light, instead of using tiny magnets. For this purpose, light with certain vibration properties, which the Hamburg X-ray laser can generate, is necessary.

With the 1.35 billion expensive plant not only certain vibrations can be generated, but also special conditions, such as those prevailing on Jupiter. For this purpose, all energy of a laser is discharged for a fraction of a second onto a small sample of the material of the planetary nucleus. The material is heated to a temperature of several million degrees Celsius, and it creates an extreme pressure. Then the X-ray laser fires its flashlight and reveals the miniature version of a planetary inferno.

.De - Xenia El Mourabit
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