SLAC X-ray Laser Offers New Glimpses of Molecules

⇐cover image: Electrons wiggle between two rows of magnets in a traditional undulator, creating X-rays. These X-rays, or light waves, are linearly polarized. (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

A new device at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory allows researchers to explore the properties and dynamics of molecules with circularly polarized, or spiraling, light.

The use of polarized light is important in the study of many molecules and processes that affect our everyday lives. It can be used to tell the difference between chiral molecules that have “left-handed” and “right-handed” variations, which affects everything from your sense of smell and taste – such as the difference between oranges and lemons, or spearmint and caraway seeds – to life-altering drugs such as thalidomide, in which one version helps ease nausea, but the other can cause abnormal limb growth in unborn children.

 

The side-to-side motion of electrons in a beam can be circular, elliptical, or linear, depending on the position of the Delta undulator's magnet rows. These different motions then create circular, elliptical, or linear polarization in the light pulse. (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
The side-to-side motion of electrons in a beam can be circular, elliptical, or linear, depending on the position of the Delta undulator’s magnet rows. These different motions then create circular, elliptical, or linear polarization in the light pulse. (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

 

With the new Delta undulator, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser can now be tailored to look at changes in magnetic materials happening faster than a trillionth of a second, as well as fleeting processes that involve chiral compounds central to areas of biological and chemical research. LCLS is a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

“We have already used these X-rays in a couple of studies, and the researchers seemed quite happy with the result,” said James MacArthur, a physics graduate student at Stanford University and part of the SLAC team that built the Delta undulator.

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