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  • 2017-05-30 12:05:59
  • Article ID: 675521

The World's Most Powerful X-Ray Laser Beam Creates 'Molecular Black Hole'

When the X-rays blast electrons out of one atom, stripping the molecule from the inside out, it steals more from its neighbors - a new insight that could help advance high-res imaging of whole viruses, bacteria and complex materials.

  • Credit: DESY/Science Communication Lab

    The extremely intense X-ray flash knocks so many electrons out of the iodine atom (right) such that it pulls in the electrons of the methyl group (left) like an elecetromagnetic version of a black hole, before finally spitting them out.

Menlo Park, Calif. — When scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory focused the full intensity of the world’s most powerful X-ray laser on a small molecule, they got a surprise: A single laser pulse stripped all but a few electrons out of the molecule’s biggest atom from the inside out, leaving a void that started pulling in electrons from the rest of the molecule, like a black hole gobbling a spiraling disk of matter.

Within 30 femtoseconds – millionths of a billionth of a second – the molecule lost more than 50 electrons, far more than scientists anticipated based on earlier experiments using less intense beams, or isolated atoms. Then it blew up. 

The results, published today in Nature, give scientists fundamental insights they need to better plan and interpret experiments using the most intense and energetic X-ray pulses from SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray free-electron laser. Experiments that require these ultrahigh intensities include attempts to image individual biological objects, such as viruses and bacteria, at high resolution. They are also used to study the behavior of matter under extreme conditions, and to better understand charge dynamics in complex molecules for advanced technological applications.

“For any type of experiment you do that focuses intense X-rays on a sample, you want to understand how it reacts to the X-rays,” said Daniel Rolles of Kansas State University. “This paper shows that we can understand and model the radiation damage in small molecules, so now we can predict what damage we will get in other systems.”

Like Focusing the Sun Onto a Thumbnail

The experiment, led by Rolles and Artem Rudenko of Kansas State, took place at LCLS’s Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument. CXI delivers X-rays with the highest possible energies achievable at LCLS, known as hard X-rays, and records data from samples in the instant before the laser pulse destroys them. 

How intense are those X-ray pulses?

“They are about a hundred times more intense than what you would get if you focused all the sunlight that hits the Earth’s surface onto a thumbnail,” said LCLS staff scientist and co-author Sebastien Boutet.

X-rays Trigger Electron Cascades

For this study, researchers used special mirrors to focus the X-ray beam into a spot just over 100 nanometers in diameter – about a hundredth the size of the one used in most CXI experiments, and a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. They looked at three types of samples: individual xenon atoms, which have 54 electrons each, and two types of molecules that each contain a single iodine atom, which has 53 electrons. 

Heavy atoms around this size are important in biochemical reactions, and researchers sometimes add them to biological samples to enhance contrast for imaging and crystallography applications. But until now, no one had investigated how the ultra-intense CXI beam affects molecules with atoms this heavy.

The team tuned the energy of the CXI pulses so they would selectively strip the innermost electrons from the xenon or iodine atoms, creating “hollow atoms.” Based on earlier studies with less energetic X-rays, they thought cascades of electrons from the outer parts of the atom would drop down to fill the vacancies, only to be kicked out themselves by subsequent x-rays. That would leave just a few of the most tightly bound electrons. And, in fact, that’s what happened in both the freestanding xenon atoms and the iodine atoms in the molecules.

But in the molecules, the process didn’t stop there. The iodine atom, which had a strong positive charge after losing most of its electrons, continued to suck in electrons from neighboring carbon and hydrogen atoms, and those electrons were also ejected, one by one.

Rather than losing 47 electrons, as would be the case for an isolated iodine atom, the iodine in the smaller molecule lost 54, including the ones it grabbed from its neighbors – a level of damage and disruption that’s not only higher than would normally be expected, but significantly different in nature.

Results Feed Into Theory to Improve Experiments

“We think the effect was even more important in the larger molecule than in the smaller one, but we don’t know how to quantify it yet,” Rudenko said. “We estimate that more than 60 electrons were kicked out, but we don’t actually know where it stopped because we could not detect all the fragments that flew off as the molecule fell apart to see how many electrons were missing. This is one of the open questions we need to study.”

For the data analyzed to date, the theoretical model provided excellent agreement with the observed behavior, providing confidence that more complex systems can now be studied, said LCLS director Mike Dunne. “This has important benefits for scientists wishing to achieve the highest resolution images of biological molecules (for example, to inform the development of better pharmaceuticals). These experiments also guide the development of a next-generation instrument for the LCLS-II upgrade project, which will provide a major leap in capability due to the increase in repetition rate from 120 pulses per second to 1 million.”  

The theory work for the study was led by Robin Santra of the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science at DESY and the University of Hamburg in Germany. Other research institutions contributing to the study were Tohoku University in Japan; Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Hamburg Center for Ultrafast Imaging and the National Metrology Institute (PTB) in Germany; the University of Science and Technology in Beijing; Aarhus University in Denmark; Sorbonne University in France; the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory; the University of Chicago; and Northwestern University. Funding for the research came from the DOE Office of Science [Basic Energy Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Geosciences and Biosciences Division] and from the German Research Foundation (DFG).

SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, California, SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. To learn more, please visit www.slac.stanford.edu.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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Coupling Experiments to Theory to Build a Better Battery

A Berkeley Lab-led team of researchers has reported that a new lithium-sulfur battery component allows a doubling in capacity compared to a conventional lithium-sulfur battery, even after more than 100 charge cycles.

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Breaking Bad Metals with Neutrons

By combining the latest developments in neutron scattering and theory, researchers are close to predicting phenomena like superconductivity and magnetism in strongly correlated electron systems. It is likely that the next advances in superconductivity and magnetism will come from such systems, but they might also be used in completely new ways such as quantum computing.

ORNL Researchers Use Titan to Accelerate Design, Training of Deep Learning Networks

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Dark Energy Survey Publicly Releases First Three Years of Data

At a special session held during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., scientists on the Dark Energy Survey (DES) announced today the public release of their first three years of data. This first major release of data from the Survey includes information on about 400 million astronomical objects, including distant galaxies billions of light-years away as well as stars in our own galaxy.

Ingredients for Life Revealed in Meteorites That Fell to Earth

A detailed study of blue salt crystals found in two meteorites that crashed to Earth - which included X-ray experiments at Berkeley Lab - found that they contain both liquid water and a mix of complex organic compounds including hydrocarbons and amino acids.


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Kelsey Stoerzinger Earns Young Investigator Lectureship

Kelsey Stoerzinger, Pauling Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is one of the 2018 Caltech Young Investigator Lecturers in Engineering and Applied Physics.

North Dakota State University Joins Two National Distributed Computing Groups

The NDSU Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology (CCAST) joins OSG (Open Science Grid) and XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment).

DOE Announces Funding for New HPC4Manufacturing Industry Projects

The Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) today announced the funding of $1.87 million for seven new industry projects under an ongoing initiative designed to utilize DOE's high-performance computing (HPC) resources and expertise to advance U.S. manufacturing and clean energy technologies.

DOE Announces First Awardees for New HPC4Materials for Severe Environments Program

The Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy (FE) today announced the funding of $450,000 for the first two private-public partnerships under a brand-new initiative aimed at discovering, designing and scaling up production of novel materials for severe environments.

Two Argonne Scientists Recognized for a Decade of Breakthroughs

Two scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been named to the Web of Science's Highly Cited List of 2017, ranking in the top 1 percent of their peers by citations and subject area. Materials Scientist Khalil Amine and Energy and Environmental Policy Scientist David Streets say they are thrilled to see their work -- and the laboratory -- recognized in such a way.

Argonne Welcomes Department of Energy Secretary Perry

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Argonne National Laboratory yesterday, getting a first-hand view of the multifaceted and interdisciplinary research program laboratory of the Department.

Argonne names John Quintana Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and COO

John Quintana has been named Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Developing Next-Generation Sensing Technologies

Recently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $20 million in funding for 15 projects that will develop a new class of sensor systems to enable significant energy savings via reduced demand for heating and cooling in residential and commercial buildings.

Supporting the Development of Offshore Wind Power Plants

Offshore wind is becoming a reality in the United States, especially in the northeast states. To support this development, the Center for Future Energy System (CFES) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will present a webinar titled "Turbine and Transmission System Technologies for Offshore Wind (OSW) Power Plants." The program will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 20, from 2 to 4 p.m. Advance registration is required.

LLNL Releases Newly Declassified Nuclear Test Videos

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) released 62 newly declassified videos today of atmospheric nuclear tests films that have never before been seen by the public.


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Exploring Past, Present, and Future Water Availability Regionally, Globally

New open-source software simulates river and runoff resources.

Arctic Photosynthetic Capacity and Carbon Dioxide Assimilation Underestimated by Terrestrial Biosphere Models

New measurements offer data vital to projecting plant response to environmental changes.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

Superconducting Tokamaks Are Standing Tall

Plasma physicists significantly improve the vertical stability of a Korean fusion device.

Graphene Flexes Its Muscle

Crumpling reduces rigidity in an otherwise stiff material, making it less prone to catastrophic failure.

Remotely Predicting Leaf Age in Tropical Forests

New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.

What's the Noise Eating Quantum Bits?

The magnetic noise caused by adsorbed oxygen molecules is "eating at" the phase stability of quantum bits, mitigating the noise is vital for future quantum computers.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.

Filtering Water Better than Nature

Water passes through human-made straws faster than the "gold standard" protein, allowing us to filter seawater.

Machine Learning Provides a Bridge to the Texture of the Quantum World

Machine learning and neural networks are the foundation of artificial intelligence and image recognition, but now they offer a bridge to see and recognize exotic insulating phases in quantum materials.


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