UK firm helps develop breakthrough X-ray technology

Generation of X-ray laser flashes in an undulator © European XFEL (Design: Marc Hermann, tricklabor)
An innovative X-ray camera, designed to record bursts of images at an unprecedented speed of 4.5million frames per second could help a major new research facility shed light on the structure of matter.

The device is being built with the help of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and will be delivered to the €billion European XFEL (X-ray Free-Electron Laser) next year. It will contribute to drug discovery and other vital research once the facility starts operating in 2015.

The continuation of the £3million prototype collaboration contract for the camera's construction has been confirmed following a visit to the STFC by a delegation from the European XFEL's Detector Advisory Committee. UK based the STFC specialises in microelectronics and has previously designed imaging devices for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Currently under construction near Hamburg, the European XFEL is a two mile long facility that will use superconducting accelerator technology to accelerate electrons which then generate X-ray flashes 1billion times brighter than those produced by conventional X-ray sources. Each flash will last less than 100million billionth of a second. With the properties of laser light, these short, intense flashes could make it possible to take 3d X-ray images of single molecules.

Current leading-edge X-ray cameras are designed to capture images when matter is bombarded by a constant beam of X-rays. However, the extreme brevity and intensity of the flashes produced by the European XFEL means such cameras will not be suitable for use at the new facility.

STFC's new device, which is being built in collaboration with University of Glasgow, is specifically designed to work in conjunction with hyper short, hyper brilliant X-ray flashes. It will be installed in one of the first experimental endstations incorporated in the European XFEL.

The device be used to help understand matter and its behaviour, mapping the atomic details of viruses, for instance, or pinpointing the molecular composition of individual cells.

Dr Tim Nicholls of STFC said: "We're delighted that the European XFEL has turned to STFC to build this pioneering camera. It demonstrates how the UK can provide the high tech excellence that world markets need, leading to scientific advances that make a real difference to people's lives."

Dr Markus Kuster, group leader of European XFEL's Detector Development, added: "The European XFEL will represent a major step forward in equipping Europe with a new generation of research infrastructure that can meet the requirements of the 21st Century. STFC's unique skills are creating an imaging device which will help this remarkable facility realise its vast potential."

Chris Shaw

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